A Street Fighter for Local Cable Ad Sales

Some sales calls are tougher than others. Long before Billy Farina was responsible for all local ad sales at Cox Communications cable systems, he was working the streets of Cranston, R.I. As with any local-cable ad-sales guy in the mid-1980s, his job was pestering local businesses to buy ads on Cox's tiny 15,000-subscriber cable system for the old "dollar a holler."

But metro Providence can be rough, with the Mafia and public corruption woven tightly into the community.

Farina was startled when a local Italian restaurateur he was pitching put a new twist on category exclusivity. The owner gave him a tour ending out back, next to the Dumpster. Farina recalls that the owner agreed to buy commercial spots but said, "I want to know I'm going to be the only restaurant on the air." Gesturing toward the trash container, he added, "If not, that's where they're going to find you."

Fortunately, no one else was selling ads, so Farina simply stopped courting other restaurants. "That's a hypothesis I didn't want to test. The risk-reward wasn't worth it."

That kind of street fighting was good preparation for Farina's current task of stealing as much business away from broadcast stations as possible. Cable networks' growing Nielsen dominance and Cox's high concentration in markets like San Diego and New Orleans mean that local ad sales have become an increasingly important to Cox, expected to total around $460 million this year, or 7% of total revenues.

Farina is frustrated that cable's share of local ad dollars doesn't match its increasingly large share of the Nielsens. "We have to get that revenue side to catch up to the viewership."

He started aiming for the TV business when he was a teenager. His Union, N.J., high school had an unusual, elaborate track in television production, with three teachers spending up to four hours daily on how to shoot, light, edit and write television pieces. The setup included a news set that had been donated by WABC-TV New York.

A political science/communications double major at the University of Arizona kept Farina working in TV production a bit and sent him to Los Angeles seeking a gig in commercials production. After four frustrating months of job hunting, he was lured back east to Boston and, eventually, an ad-sales job for Cox in nearby Rhode Island, a stepping stone, he assumed, to producing commercials, "the part I truly love, the creative end of it."

But there are plenty of sales bones in Farina's body (with a completely straight face, he refers to used-car peddlers as "the secondary market of automobile dealers"). After five years, he moved into sales management at Cox's Connecticut systems. Then he got the adventurous gig: starting up a sales operation at Cox's startup cable operation in Preston, England.

The bad news was that his wife, Susan, had just delivered their second child and Farina's three-month gig stretched into nine and he got home only every three or four weeks.

Farina was surprised at how difficult it was to sell local British businesses on cable. "There weren't a lot of options for them. There was an awful lot of waste on broadcast, especially for regional advertisers."

He returned to the States and a more senior job in Cox's Atlanta headquarters as a regional vice president. That was when Cox doubled its size by acquiring Times Mirror Cable and then expanded again by taking over TCA Cable TV's mostly rural systems.

Farina calls his current job "somewhat of a balancing act." He finds it a challenge selling against increasingly annoyed local broadcast stations. Cox's salespeople need to meet advertisers on the stations' terms, he believes, which means that systems should ease away from reliance on "24-hour rotators" and sell more by dayparts. "In four or five of our markets, we're selling more local dollars than any local TV station," excluding national spot, Farina said. His goal is that all Cox systems beat that mark.