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Out to trump his own ace

The 21st century cable industry saluted one of its 20th century pioneers last week, in a moment that made many of those present nostalgic for the good old days.

The occasion was cable's Walter Kaitz dinner, which each year brings together a critical mass of that medium's upper echelon in New York. The honoree was John Rigas, who has never forgotten where he came from: by family origin, Greece; by accident of family emigration, a small town in Pennsylvania named Coudersport.

After that, the story is fairly typical Horatio Alger: starting out in a diner, then buying a rundown theater, then stumbling into cable with a $100 investment. The result is Adelphia Communications, now the fifth-largest MSO with billions in annual revenue and a nationwide reach. But it's still essentially a family business, which largely accounts for Adelphia's continuing to acquire while many other MSOs have long since cashed out.

The Rigas story is, of course, the American dream. It is his generation, after all, that Tom Brokaw canonized as the greatest. It's not necessary to go that far to recognize that cable is a better industry and television a better medium for having been developed by entrepreneurs who got there the hard way.

John Rigas still has a light in his eye along with a fire in the belly. He respects the past but-as he told the Kaitz audience-he wants to meet his social contract even better in the future "and get the stock back up." No wonder the standing ovation.