An Industry Builder, 'People Person’

The following is an edited version of a story by K.C. Neel that appeared in the May 25, 2009 issue of Multichannel News, as part of a special report on Bresnan Communications’s 25th anniversary.

Over half a century, Bill Bresnan built cable systems from scratch, ran small and large cable companies — including the country’s largest MSO at the time — and was at the forefront of technological developments spurring, among other things, the advancement of satellite transmission and fiber optics.

Bresnan proved that sub-suburban and rural cable systems can be just as technologically advanced and profitable — if not more so — than large, urban operations. And, all along the way, he became one of the industry’s most widely respected and well-liked executives.

“With everything we’ve seen in the business world in the last two years, it’s incredible anyone can stay in the same industry for 50 years and keep his reputation intact,” said Mediacom Communications CEO Rocco Commisso, adding that Bresnan exemplified “everything that is the best of the cable industry.”

Liberty Media chairman John Malone described Bresnan as “an entrepreneur at heart.” That entrepreneurial spirit was evident at an early age, when as a boy Bresnan filled the chicken coop behind his house with laying hens.

The business flourished, until an electrical fire burned the coop — an event that became known in the Bresnan household as the “Easter Sunday Massacre.”

Bresnan’s interest in electronics led him to start repairing radios for friends and neighbors. By age 22, he was working at a radio-supply company. While at that job, Bresnan sold cable to a group that was building a CATV system in his hometown of Mantako, Minn. It wasn’t long before he was hired as an engineer to build and run the system in Rochester, Minn.

The system was eventually sold to Jack Kent Cooke, who hired Bresnan and his brother Pat in 1965. Within three years, Bresnan was running Cooke’s cable operations.

When Cooke wanted to merge his H&B American cable operations with TelePrompTer in 1970, Bresnan wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Indeed, it turned out to be a disaster. TelePrompTer — the brainchild of Irving Kahn — was drowning in debt. And to top it off, Kahn was convicted of bribing a local official in Pennsylvania to get a franchise.

With Kahn out of the picture, Cooke put Bresnan in charge. The merger of H&B and TelePrompTer created the largest MSO in the country, and the company was instrumental in pushing for and supporting satellite delivery of programming signals.

After years of backbreaking work, Bresnan turned TelePrompTer around and eventually convinced Cooke to sell it to Westinghouse in 1981. He agreed to stay for three years but had long been itching to start his own company. He formed Bresnan Communications in 1984.

Bresnan joined the National Cable & Telecommunications Association when he took the reigns of TelePrompTer and held various board positions over the years — NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow figures Bresnan had the longest running tenure on NCTA’s board ever.

After selling his company to Paul Allen’s Charter Communications in 2000, Bresnan bought his way back into cable in 2003, convincing Comcast to sell systems in the Rocky Mountains obtained in the AT&T Broadband acquisition. (Comcast retained a stake.)

The new Bresnan Communications quickly rebuilt what it bought: within 18 months, 93% of the plant was at 625 MHz or greater capacity, with 77% at 750 MHz plus. Digital video, high-speed Internet and telephone penetration growth followed rapidly.

An example of the Bresnan company’s public service is the $2 million small business incubator program instituted in Montana and later extended to Wyoming, earning Bresnan plaudits as a great corporate citizen.

Praising Bresnan’s ability to pull people together, McSlarrow described him as “a people person.”

Showtime Networks CEO Matt Blank remembered the first time he met Bresnan. “I was just a lowly marketing director at HBO at the time, and Bill was running TelePrompTer,” Blank said. “He was the big dog in the yard. But Bill treated me as a peer, and I have never forgotten that.”