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Top 100 Cable Systems - A Year of Living Cautiously

The big MSOs went back to basics in 2003. Eschewing big deals and avoiding huge capital expenditures, they worked to digest acquisitions and recoup the heavy capital investments they had made in recent years.

That made the top executives listed in the 2004 Top 100 Cable Systems special report more important than ever. While many of the major decisions on programming, capital investments and equipment are now made at corporate headquarters, local managers remain the key to driving subscriber growth and new services. Operating on the front lines of cable's battle against digital TV offerings by satellite platforms and the DSL offerings of local phone companies, these executives face not only increased competition but renewed corporate scrutiny.

Judging by the data in the 2004 list of the 100 largest cable systems, many of them are delivering the goods. Even though many systems operate in relatively mature markets, the top 100 systems reported 50,075,143 basic subscribers in January, up 5% over last year's 47,644,436 total subs.

Some, perhaps much, of the growth in basic subs can be attributed to the ongoing consolidation of the larger systems. But there is little doubt that the top 100 cable systems generally managed to dramatically increase penetration rates for high-speed data and, to a lesser extent, digital TV.

Obtaining exact data on this growth at a local level is difficult and many cable systems refused to provide penetration data. Even so, 73% percent of those that supplied cable-modem data had a penetration rate over 30%, a big jump from last year, when only 19% did. Cox's Omaha system led the pack in this category with 36.5% penetration by high-speed data.

In digital TV, 68.4% of the systems that provided data this year had penetration rates of over 30%, up from 2003, when 53.6% had reached that level. This year, Time Warner Cable's Houston system led the pack with 46.9% penetration.

But the most important feature of this list isn't the numbers: It's the people. Defining a local system has become increasingly difficult in recent years, thanks to consolidation and massive corporate restructurings. Some of the systems listed here would once have been considered regional; others cover single cities that meet the more tradition definition of a cable system. Either way, the listings are designed to reflect the way decisions about local operations are made. This list, therefore, offers a look at the background of these top executives and the systems they run.

The systems are ranked by basic subscriber counts. As a result, two or more systems may have the same rank.