An Innovator Who Inspires, Too

These are, as usual, exciting times for the cable industry. It's fighting to prevent mandated carriage of broadcasters' multicast channels, fighting the competition posed by DBS, and fighting to find new ways to grow. As cable's top players have changed in the past decade—John Malone, Leo Hindery, and Ted Turner have turned down their exposure meter—it's a good thing Michael S. Willner, Insight Communications co-founder, vice chairman, and chief executive, is still on the job. Cable operators need a leader, and Willner is the man.

That's why he'll get the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership on May 4 at the annual convention in New Orleans. He not only runs one of the nation's most innovative cable systems but is seemingly on every important cable board there is.

Last spring, he finished his second consecutive term as chairman of the NCTA board of directors and still serves on its executive committee. He's also a member of the executive committee of CableLabs and is on the board of directors of C-SPAN, The Cable Center, and the Walter Kaitz Foundation. He's a member of the Women in Cable and Telecommunications board of trustees. No wonder that, in 2000, he was given the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Boston University, where he is a 1974 graduate of its college of communications.

He has communicated much since then, not just on all those boards but in front of Congress, too. "The key to innovation for cable has always been two-fold: consumer demand and freedom from excessive regulation," he told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2001, during its probe of the industry's transition to a digital age.

Even back then, Willner was warning legislators about the looming battle over digital must-carry. He noted pointedly, "To date, broadcasters have not developed a digital business plan. They do not even know how much spectrum they will devote to 'free TV.' Six years ago, this entire discussion was about broadcasters' need to deliver HDTV over the air. With that spectrum now in hand, that plan seems dead."

That is Willner, telling it like it is, a personality trait you won't find lacking in him. He's also a risk-taker, as evidenced by his surprisingly technologically advanced cable systems, which serve about 1.3 million subscribers in small to midsize cities. It's the ninth-largest system in the nation.

Insight operates in Rockford, Peoria, Dixon, Springfield, and Champaign, Ill.; in Louisville, Lexington, Covington, and Bowling Green, Ky.; in Bloomington, Evansville, Lafayette, and Richmond, Ind.; and in Columbus, Ohio. In those "fly-over states," Willner has been a pioneer of high-speed-data, local-telephony, and interactive services. In fact, not all of it has worked; 2003 was a rough year that the company is just pulling out of now. "I don't think everything we did panned out to the extent we hoped," Willner said in a profile of the company published in B&C
in the April 26 issue.

But he adds, "I don't think anything we did had us falling on our face. We are quite successful in leading the charge in the [video-on-demand] area."

Being way out front is Willner's way of leading. When he became NCTA chairman in 2001, he said he thought cable's biggest challenge was to "start acting competitive as opposed to being complacent and relying solely on our core multichannel business. If we don't innovate, we're going to be slaughtered. Once cable was the only way people could get multichannel television. Today, customers all over the United States have at least two choices and sometimes more than that.

"We have a two-way platform," he added, "that can do more things than other platforms. We need to exploit that with multiple products for video and voice, such as local phone services and interactive television."

Indeed, Insight's systems have been lauded for their farsighted expansion into new areas—expansions that seem to have happened more quickly than consumers could grasp them. At the end of 1999, the now-defunct magazine Cablevision
gave Insight its Innovator Award in the new-media category for the cable operators' Local Source product, an interactive service available only in the Rockford system that allowed subscribers to use their remote control for all kinds of local information delivered via a Web based, interactive guide.

Like some of Insight's other products, though, Local Source may have been too much too soon. Concentrating so much effort on new services weakened Insight's analog base. Now Willner, while maintaining his role as an industry leader, is working on getting Insight on firm footing.

But that doesn't mean he's still not innovating. That's in his bones. Last December, Insight introduced customers to a new kind of set-top box. Delivering high-definition and a TiVo-like digital video recorder in one unit, it's expected to drive new sales. And Willner's Insight just launched a children's video-on-demand package, with news and sports packages soon to follow. Insight also completed a deal with ABC News to deliver special reports and Nightline
excerpts for a VOD offering.

Willner wants "good enough" to turn the corner to "best." In a speech to a House committee in 2002, he said, "The challenge we face is how to get a nation of consumers to migrate from a very good analog TV environment to an even better digital environment. We believe that compelling high-definition programming is the key to driving consumer demand for digital television. "

Although Insight Communications may have hit a few bumps in the road, it's clear that Willner is still there at the forefront, pushing change, pushing progress, and pushing innovation. He's the leading edge of cable's future.