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Selling cable hands-on

Pam Halling started in what is probably the least lucrative part of the cable business. Local programming is a near-stepchild at most systems, widely regarded as a government-required annoyance. It's city council and sewer commission meetings. It's interviews with local community leaders, who are generally not as TV-savvy as Greta Van Susteren.

But Halling, now senior vice president of marketing and programming for cable operator Insight Communications, recalls those days at Continental Cablevision's Findlay, Ohio, systems fondly. "It's what people want to see," Halling said about those hyper-local events. And down in the trenches, you meet some interesting people: The play-by-play voice for Findlay high-school football and basketball games was Ray Joslyn, now the group head of Hearst Entertainment.

Nevertheless, even as a recent college grad, Halling "realized that there was no money in local cable programming."

Now Halling is in charge of marketing, programming and ad sales for New York-based Insight, the No. 10 cable operator, known for aggressively deploying advanced interactive services that other operators are a bit sour on.

Best known as a marketing executive, Halling is unusual because she's spent time on both sides of the cable game, starting on the system side, moving over to the network side for a time at Rainbow Media (pushing Bravo and the predecessor to the Playboy Channel), then Disney Channel before crossing back over.

She likes marketing on the system side more. "The value of the networks is you have a national laboratory of information," Halling said. But two critical elements of marketing—retail pricing and packaging—are largely out of network executives' hands. "They're not your customers. It's more frustrating." At an MSO, "You get to be close to the customer."

An Ohio grain farmer's daughter, Halling got into cable shortly after college in 1974, answering a want ad to work on local programming for Continental Cablevision's Findlay system. A fine-arts major and painter, she was drawn to graphic design for the local-origination channel.

The people Halling kept bumping into in the halls grew into huge players in cable: Continental co-founders Amos Hostetter and Irv Grousbeck; James Robbins, now president of Cox Communications; and Joslyn. "Looking back," Halling reflected, "it was amazing how hands-on they were."

Marketing in the cable industry has changed dramatically during Halling's career. In the early 1980s, cable was still new to suburban and urban TV junkies. Operators still benfited from the legendary "truck chasers." Marketing was heavily transactional. Marketing was leaving a good door hanger on a street where the new system had just branched.

"It was pretty much in an era where we had no competition and people loved the product," Halling said. "It was not a difficult product to sell."

Even as cable's novelty waned (and prices rose as customer service declined), systems still had a monopoly in the early '90s. Cable marketing was far less sophisticated than other consumer products'. Subs bought HBO and MTV, not Insight Cable.

That's all changed. DBS emerged with a much better product than most operators could provide, plus great advertising and marketing messages. The introduction of digital cable, high-speed Internet data and telephone services means operators like Insight not only have products that are more difficult to sell, but they also have to sell their own brands, rather than borrow networks' much-stronger brands.

"We've realized that you cannot mass-market these products like you used to," Halling said. "You're getting down to homes that are resistors and those that can't afford it. Messaging, touchpoint management, sending the right direct-mail piece to the right home, it's very intricate."