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Humble Beginnings: Hetzel’s Career Comes Full Circle at Rentrak

Cathy Hetzel
Advanced Media and Information

Cathy Hetzel’s illustrious 28-year career in cable got off to an inauspicious start. while studying business at San Diego State University, she worked nights typing cox cable’s sales territory lists for its door-to-door marketing agents.

One problem: “I was the worst typist on the planet,” Hetzel laughed. “I’d sit there at midnight hunting and pecking. My boss told me he had to find a different role for me, or he would fire me.”

So she stepped into a job training the sales reps — and found she loved it. Hetzel stayed at Cox for five years and eventually was managing the system’s business office of about 100 employees.

“My passion for cable is just as strong today as it was back then,” Hetzel says.

She has since worked for a range of cable, media and technology companies, including Rogers Communications, Rainbow Media, Disney Channel and Music Choice. Through it all, Hetzel has been eager to learn the intricacies of how the business works and the technology that drives it forward.

“When you think about it, every year something new happens in this business,” she said. “Learning and progress are two of the things that really drive me.”

She has been consistently at the forefront of industry trends, says Jim Chiddix, the former Time Warner Cable chief technology officer. He first met Hetzel when he was at Oceanic Cable in Honolulu and she was at Rainbow Media, pitching networks like Bravo, American Movie Classics and Playboy Channel, and they’ve remained good friends over the years.

“Cathy has a way of being out there on the edge. It’s hard to remember when cable programming was new, but it was,” Chiddix says. “She’s smart and honest, she likes people — and she’s willing to take a risk.”

Not all of those gambles paid off. After she left Music Choice, Hetzel in 2000 joined a high-tech consulting company, Concero, where she oversaw a team that was developing a shop-on-TV application. Then the Internet bubble burst, and the company was out of business within two years.

Now, as president of Rentrak’s Advanced Media & Information division, Hetzel is trying to sell new forms of viewing analytics to the TV industry, including set-top box data that promises to show programmers and advertisers, in granular detail, exactly who’s watching and when.

She sees her current job as bringing her cable experience full circle: “At Rentrak, I’ve been able to put together my interest in how things work with the sales and marketing side.”

She joined Rentrak in March 2004, after a one-year consulting gig. Hetzel recalled seeing Rentrak president and chief strategy officer Ken Papagan at a Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing conference. The company was gearing up to enter the video-on-demand measurement space, and Papagan was looking for someone who could make inroads with the cable operators. “He pointed at me and said, 'You know all those cable people, don’t you?’ ” Hetzel said.

It was an uphill climb: “Nobody on the cable side of the business had heard of Rentrak,” Hetzel says. She and her team targeted Comcast, and convinced the MSO it was better to use Rentrak’s data-analysis tools than have someone manually comb through VOD server logs. Today, 37 cable operators provide daily data on VOD usage through Rentrak’s system, which represents more than 70 million set-tops.

“What Cathy knows, they don’t teach at Harvard Business School,” says Rentrak CEO Bill Livek. “She understands what the cable industry does, what it wants today and where it’s headed.”

The next challenge: Rentrak is compiling real-time linear data supplied by Dish Network, AT&T and Charter Communications’ Los Angeles system. Today, Rentrak is selling only the AT&T data as it works to bring in other operators and provide a national footprint for the service, Hetzel said. “There’s more than one hard thing to accomplish here.”

In addition to working for Rentrak, Hetzel is a participating member of Women in Cable and Telecommunications, the Cable Television Administrative and Marketing Society, The Cable Center and the Southern California Cable Association.

She’s also involved with Dress For Success, a nonprofit foundation that assists women who need help entering the work force by providing them with new clothes and teaching them job interview skills.

As a young girl growing up in Warren, Ohio, Hetzel wanted to be a schoolteacher “very badly,” she says. “I’d play school all the time.”

Then, when she was older, she wanted to be a flight attendant. “I didn’t have any money, but I wanted to see the world,” Hetzel said. “That seemed like a good way to do it.”

Hetzel, who lives and works in Portland, Ore. — where Rentrak is based — still enjoys traveling. She and her husband have a vacation home in Sarasota, Fla.

And yes, she loves to watch TV, with faves ranging from Gossip Girl to AMC’s Mad Men. “I have a secret passion for television,” Hetzel said.

Like many viewers these days, she watches most shows on DVR or on-demand. But, she added, “I don’t always fast-forward through the commercials.”