MSO Execs: Don’t Be Complacent, Take Risks

New York -- Several top MSO executives warned Wednesday that cable operators can’t afford to be complacent in their success and must still take risks.

And these officials also admitted that the biggest blunders they’ve made have been in making bad hiring decisions.

"All business is risk by its very nature," Tom Rutledge, president of cable and communications for Cablevision Systems Corp., said during a "Cable Leaders" panel at the Women in Cable & Telecommunications Forum here. "The biggest risk in business is success."

When a company is successful, it fears making changes that "can cannibalize the core of what you’re doing," Rutledge told the audience at the session.

Several of Rutledge’s peers agreed with him. Dave Watson, Comcast Corp.’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said one of his MSO’s toughest decisions has been making a massive financial investment -- $500 million -- toward video-on-demand.

"You need to make the call that you need to move your organization forward," he said.

ABC Cable Networks Group president Anne Sweeney added, "Our industry is about risk," be it risks related to technology, on the creative side and with consolidation.

Panelist Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable, said he sees the issue being more about change than risk.

"It’s human nature to seek the status quo, to move back instead of forward," Britt said. "In fact, it’s risky to do nothing."

The cable industry is by its nature "self-selecting," one that attracts risk-takers, because it "is sort of a wild, crazy business," according to Cox Communications Inc. CEO Jim Robbins, another one of the panelists.

As for the daily trials and tribulations of a CEO, the panel had plenty of examples. Robbins said his role is the big-picture course, "to make sure we have the strategy right. That’s constantly being tweaked."

According to Robbins, "The other part of the job is just dealing with crap. That’s part of the job, too."

Rutledge, too, conceded that he sometimes has to deal with "the crap factor."

During a question-and-answer session, the panelists were asked what their biggest "personal leadership blunders" have been. Three of the executives cited hiring as their minefield.

"Bad hires: Done a bunch of them," Robbins said, prompting laughter in the audience.

Rutledge agreed, saying his Achilles’ heel is personnel issues. "I’ve always had difficulties with that, because I find it’s just a crapshoot ... I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that area," he said.

Watson was on the same page, saying, "I agree that personnel issues are very difficult.

I hired the wrong person. I let it go too long."

MTV Networks Group president Judy McGrath has some regrets specific to MTV: Music Television regarding "following the company line" and being too safe.

"Every time MTV rejected a video, I regretted it, pretty much, unless it was for some really egregious reason," McGrath said.

The other "blunder" she cited was the early years at MTV, when the network was "playing top-40 white pop music." Said McGrath, "It was a huge, huge terrible thing to do."