Remembering A Cable Legend

A great American passes.

It was standing room only in St. Mary’s Church here last Wednesday morning, as close to 1,000 mourners packed the aisles to bid farewell to a great American entrepreneur and cable pioneer, Bill Bresnan, who died Nov. 27 at age 75.

As the leader of the mass, Bishop William Lori, pointed out, the house was packed with a “Who’s Who” of the cable and telecommunications industry, as well as friends, family and fans. His granddaughter sang “Amazing Grace” to a crowd completely enrapt. Bresnan’s son, brother and wife spoke of a man who was not only accomplished as a cable executive, but a loving father and husband who made each one feel special in his world. He told his son to be thankful for all the blessings he had been given, and extolled him to “give back.” As a teenager, Bill explained to his brother how it was wrong that a neighbor’s business over-charged customers.

But it was a story told by Bill’s wife, Ann, that perhaps best reflected Bill’s humor, candor and core character. As Bill’s health declined, the bishop visited him at his bedside. He asked Bill, a Catholic, if he wanted to give a final confession. As Ann stood up to leave the room to give them privacy, Bill stopped her. “No,” he said to the bishop. “I’m good.”

Thoughts from industry figures on Bresnan’s passing:

Michael Willner, CEO, Insight Communications: “I lost a great friend, our industry lost a great cable guy and the world lost a great person.”

Jeff DeMond, CEO, Bresnan Communications: “Bill Bresnan hired good, smart people and lead by example. He gave us the mission to succeed not just by doing things right, but by doing the right thing as well, and each of our lives is richer for having learned from him.”

Larry Satkowiak, CEO, The Cable Center: “For all of his great success in business, Bill will be remembered most for his kindness. He was committed to his family, his faith, his country and his fellow man. He was an early advocate of diversity and both personally and professionally supported the cable industry’s diversity efforts. Bill cherished the past, but he constantly looked toward the future by giving others the opportunity to achieve great things.”

Brian Lamb, chairman and CEO, C-SPAN Networks: “The best way for me to sum up Bill Bresnan is to do so simply: He was just the best. I don’t know how you can say it any better than that.”

Alan Gerry, cable pioneer and innovator: “Bill has left a giant void in the lives of all of us who knew him. A modest man with a heart of gold walked among us during the many decades that he devoted to building his various cable television pursuits and the many legislative hurdles he overcame to become one of the true leaders and entrepreneurs of the cable television industry. Sandra and I express our deepest condolences to Bill’s wife Ann and their loving family.”

Bob Clasen, CEO, Starz LLC: “For more than 35 years I knew Bill Bresnan as a competitor for franchises, a leader on industry issues, an aggressive Starz distributor, a devoted father and husband and a serious fan of Encore Westerns. In each role he was a class guy, treating every person he met with the same unfailing courtesy and respect. Liane and I send our deepest sympathies to his family.”

Matt Polka, CEO, American Cable Association: “Bill was an extraordinary man who, as a small cable operator himself, recognized the contributions of independent operators to the ongoing growth of the industry. … Bill’s leadership greatly enriched those of us who were fortunate enough to know him and learn from his example.”

Dick Green, former CEO, CableLabs: “Bill was my mentor and friend. As a fledgling CEO, he taught me the importance of perseverance and he was there to guide me when daunting and difficult decisions had to be made. His 21 years of advocacy and leadership on the CableLabs board served the industry well. His direction helped us understand and address the needs of the smaller market companies. We are all grateful for his many contributions. We have lost a great human being, entrepreneur and friend.“

Kyle McSlarrow, CEO, National Cable & Telecommunications Association: “Bill Bresnan was one of our industry’s titans — an industry pioneer, visionary entrepreneur, and technology leader who built companies that always put employees and customers first. But his impact on our industry was immeasurable in many other ways. Bill set the standard for commitment to diversity, serving as a mentor to many rising cable executives, a friend to thousands of people across the business, and inspiring the work of diversity advocates and organizations throughout our industry. We’re also deeply grateful for the leadership Bill demonstrated in establishing our industry’s commitment to public service through his work in creating organizations such as C-SPAN and Cable in the Classroom.”

Marianne Paskowski, editor in chief of Multichannel News from 1990 through 2005: I met my very first cable operator in 1987 and that was Bill Bresnan. I had just landed a new gig as New York bureau chief of Electronic Media, now Television Week. I was uncomfortable having two cable journalists reporting to me because I knew absolutely nothing about cable.

Impulsively, I called Bill Bresnan, who I did not know at all back then. He told me I came to the right place as I explained my angst. In retrospect, I had indeed gone to the right place, as we remained steadfast friends for decades.

In 1990, I moved on to head up the editorial team of Multichannel News, where I stayed for 15 years until I “retired” in 2005. That 1990 move was an even tougher leap for me, as cable began to morph overseas and expand into telephony.

I felt just as betrayed as Goldie Hawn did in the movie Private Benjamin, thinking this sure wasn’t the army I joined. Bill roared with laughter, calming me down with his incredibly ribald jokes, which he enjoyed more than any of his listeners did.

We had earlier made a pact. I would call and ask if Multichannel would look “brilliant” or “stupid” if we ran a breaking story that no other source would touch. His vote was about 50-50 and I never second-guessed his judgment. That’s why, in part, we broke stories that none of our competitors had.

But it wasn’t all business. He often spoke of his first wife Barbara Boettcher-Bresnan, also of Polish extraction, as he loved to remind me. He spoke of her uphill battle with Lupus. Bill did everything to make her happy, including fulfilling her dream of moving from Scarsdale, N.Y., to Greenwich, Conn.

In 2000, Bill sold Bresnan Communications to Charter Communications for the then record breaking price of $3.1 billion. It should have been a time for celebration, but on Oct. 26, Barbara, his wife of 43 years succumbed to her incurable disease at the early age of 63.

When I later visited him at his then-headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., the office was much like I remembered it — full of industry awards, trophies and many pictures of his large family.

But Bill was a changed man, clearly shell-shocked at the devastating turn in his life. There were no racy jokes, just teary-eyed stories about Barbara and how she never lived long enough to totally remodel her dream home. I couldn’t even get a stir from him with the latest industry dish.

Fast-forward to 2003, when Bresnan Communications emerged from the ashes. Bill purchased some cable systems in Montana from Comcast and so chapter two for the company had just begun. He told me on a ride in his private jet, en route to the National Show in New Orleans, that he was attempting to wire towns in Montana that “time had forgotten” — much as his Minnesota hometown had been.

More important, it was also chapter two for Bill. He had begun dating Ann Lessing, the real estate agent who sold him the house in Greenwich. He began to bring her to industry affairs. On several occasions she told me that a subscription to Multichannel News was too costly. I told her not to worry, Bill could afford it.

He laughed and was again a happy man. He and Ann married in June 2005. That same year I picked up stakes and moved to Cape Cod. Bill wrote me a beautiful letter. In part it read: “You’ve been a very good friend to our industry, to our company, and to me personally. It’s always been reassuring to know that when a story was in your hands, it was in good hands.”

Well, I was the one in good hands and now it’s my turn to thank him. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Linda Brodsky, his friend of 40 years and his speechwriter of 18 years who helped me with the chronology of events.

“Much has been said of him in recent days. I believe one word says it all: decency. I never knew a finer man,” she said. Amen.

For more reflections on the life of Bill Bresnan,