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Meet Her in St. Louis: Suddenlink’s McCaskill Gets Personal

For most cable executives, moving around the country is commonplace. But Patty McCaskill has managed to become one of the industry’s most successful and influential cable executives without ever leaving St. Louis.

McCaskill has more than 30 years experience in cable-industry management and operations, with an emphasis in marketing, sales, customer service, programming, strategic planning, and budget development.

Today, she serves as Suddenlink Communications’ senior vice president of programming, responsible for managing the MSO’s relationships with television stations and cable networks.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, said Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent.

“Patty sits through every budget meeting in the company and she is focused on every aspect of the business,” Kent said. “She’s also involved in strategic planning — where we invest, what technology we use. … If she stayed in the programming niche, she wouldn’t be using all her talents. But thankfully, she hasn’t limited herself there .”

Kent and McCaskill go back a long way. She was working at Warner Amex Cable’s Qube system in St. Louis when Cencom Cable (where Kent was a partner) consolidated the market by buying the area’s four existing systems in the early 1980s. “She was just brilliant,” Kent recalled. But McCaskill left after the system was sold and went to work for The Travel Channel.

After Travel was sold to Landmark Communications, McCaskill formed a consulting firm and was involved with helping various MSOs with franchising issues. When Kent and partners Barry Babcock and Howard Wood formed Charter Communications in 1993, they knew they needed McCaskill’s skills and hired her to help with programming. The gig was supposed to be temporary, but within six weeks, they convinced her to stay for good.

Charter grew from 100,000 customers to 7 million by the time she and Kent left the company in 2002. Kent formed a new MSO, Cequel III, began amassing small systems and brought McCaskill along for the ride.

“I thrive in a startup environment,” McCaskill said. “When you’re with small companies, everyone is involved. With larger companies, you have to make sure to stay involved and it’s harder to do.

“The advantage of working at smaller companies is that it’s easier to create a close, cohesive group and we can be more nimble and creative than larger companies. … Good rates aren’t the only thing you need to have to be successful in this business. You have to be able to move quickly and give customers what they want.”

Most of McCaskill’s time these days is taken up by contract renewals, including deals for video-on-demand and broadband programming, retransmission consent and the development and Introduction of new technologies. Kent credits McCaskill with being tenacious, yet honest and fair, when it comes to negotiations.

“She won’t take 'no’ for an answer,” he said. “She is a deal-maker. She knows when to be tough, especially when it comes to retransmission-consent deals, which tend to be more acrimonious than traditional cable negotiations.

“Part of that is because we haven’t worked with the broadcasters as long as we have with the cable programmers. But they are also losing network compensation and ad revenue and are looking at cable to make some of that up. But Patty is creative and she always tries to find ways in which everyone can benefit. ”

The cable business is all about relationships, McCaskill said. “The industry is full of business relationships that have become personal friendships.”

That strong sense of relationship has also led the industry, and McCaskill, to get involved with organizations that give back beyond cable’s borders. McCaskill has been a board member of AIDS-advocacy organization Cable Positive for the past five years and is the first vice chairman of its executive committee.

“She is a visionary, but isn’t afraid of rolling up her sleeves and going to work to achieve a goal,” said Cable Positive president Steve Villano. “Her voice is very persuasive.”

At this point, Suddenlink’s top team is trying to figure out what’s around the corner when it comes to satisfying customers. “We understand that consumers are becoming agnostic with their delivery mechanisms of entertainment and we want to provide them with what they want to watch, when they want to watch it and where they want to watch it,” McCaskill said.

Being smaller can be an advantage here, she said. “When you’re small, you can often test things outside the spotlight until you get it right. ”

The next 18 to 24 months will be exciting, McCaskill said. She is confident Suddenlink will be able to weather the withering economy “as long as we listen to what our customers are telling us and respond accordingly.” She predicts that HDTV and VOD will continue to grow and that the MSO will continue to push voice, video and data “because we know that the triple play leads to customer satisfaction.”

McCaskill is charged with “making sure we deliver our products and services over multiple devices where and when viewers want them,” Kent said. It’s a tall order, he said, but “when you turn something over to Patty, you just know it will get done.”