Willner's Leadership Earns Respect From Peers

Insight Communications Co. may rank near the tail end of the top 10 MSOs, but that rank doesn't apply to the New York-based company's chairman and CEO Michael Willner. On matters from new service rollouts to diversity to financial clarity, his industry peers consider Willner the head of the class in image makers.

"On many fronts, he's done a tremendous service to the cable industry," said Comcast Cable Communications Inc. president Steven Burke. He praised Willner — who also serves as chairman of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association — as an articulate spokesman, adding that the Insight head's accomplishments have had a broad impact on different sectors of the business.

For setting the cable industry's agenda and dealing with the consequences it spawns, Willner is the 2002 Innovator Award honoree for Image Maker.

Guiding an MSO that serves close to 1.3 million households, independently or through Insight Midwest L.P. — its joint venture with AT&T Broadband — is a role the humble Willner relishes. "I don't know if I consider myself an image-maker," he said with a laugh. "Cable is a great industry and I try to be a worthy spokesperson for it by speaking from the heart and the brain. Usually, that's pretty good."

With Willner at the helm, Insight over the past few years assertively rolled out advanced services. It was the first large operator to launch interactive TV in many of its markets, and was among the first to deploy high-speed Internet access and video-on-demand. It also stepped to the fore when it launched Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.'s niche video-on-demand service Mag Rack, becoming the first MSO other than parent Cablevision Systems Corp. to launch the specialized service.

In recent months, Willner, as head of both Insight and the NCTA, has also been a leader in framing agendas to deal with some of cable's key issues. He helped pilot the effort to craft industry support for Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell's proposal to bring digital TV to the masses.

"We have a more cooperative image [on Capitol Hill] on such matters as the Powell digital proposal," he said. "Congress is recognizing that cable is making the digital conversion without any handouts."

Refining cable stats

With increased financial scrutiny demanded by Wall Street — set off by revelations of financial irregularities and corporate chicanery at companies including Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp. — Willner called for public cable firms to organize a common way to present their economic data in a transparent fashion.

Last month, Insight became the first MSO to include detailed information about "customer relationships," spending on customer-premise equipment, and revenue-generating units when it released its third-quarter results. The idea: to give more consistent benchmarks across the board.

For example with customer relationships, subscribers are now being identified as video, data or telephony purchasers to smooth out differences in reporting counts.

MSOs will provide more detail about the progress of rebuilds, when allocations for these projects will diminish, and which outlays will result in immediate revenue returns — like the set-top boxes required for digital video or cable modems.

Going forward, publicly traded MSOs agreed to define RGUs as primary analog video, digital video, high-speed data and telephony, not counting for additional units. Previously, some MSOs had reported RGUs only as measures of advanced services — separate from basic-subscriber counts.

"We have to speak to our business realities and strengths, putting to rest some of the misinformation about our reporting of certain operating matrixes," Willner said, noting that Adelphia's woes "hurt a lot, but it's also Enron, Tyco [International Ltd.] and general corporate criticisms today. All these situations aren't at the final chapter, so we have to go through due process to find the reality of all these corporate abuses."

He believes the new metrics "will help the Street understand that cable is a healthy, robust, growing industry. What we have to keep doing now is navigate through this and operate and perform. If it takes three months or 12 months, the market will ultimately understand how fundamentally terrific the business is."

Diversity declarations

Willner's proactive approach was also evident at NAMIC's annual conference in September. As a member of a CEO roundtable, Willner urged the industry to take giant steps forward in diversifying its senior executive core, its programming focus and making new media available and affordable among people of color.

By 2050, "the face of New York, California and south Florida will be the face of America," he said. "We'd better develop on that fact or we'll be out of business. Out of survival for itself and doing the right thing, cable will lead the other media and telecommunications industries in diversity. The pace of change is frustrating, but the awareness is there."

Insight has already taken steps in this direction by including more women and minorities in key company roles.

Kim Kelly, who joined the company as executive vice president and chief financial officer in 1990, added the title of chief operating officer in 1998. Earlier this year, she was named president of the company, as well as president and CEO of Insight Midwest. The MSO also has promoted people of color to other roles.

"There's some significant headway being made towards inclusion," Willner said. "The key decision-makers are moving forward, and that will lead to accelerated progress."

Emphasizing the fundamentals

Willner also is pleased with the industry's progress in its original business. Two decades ago "we were play TV, not real TV," he stated. "Now we're the leaders in the medium from scales of quality to quantity and ratings. Twenty years is a short time to go from nothing to leader. The content side of cable is one of the great success stories of all time."

Still, Willner knows this is no time for industry complacency — especially with regard to such fundamental business-building blocks as consumer service and education.

"We're OK with [the customers], but we could do better. They don't understand we have the most flexible platform of all telecommunication mediums, or that we are the most high-tech platform around," he said. "We must do a better job educating them, while showing up on time, answering phones and providing excellent service. Start with them first; then focus on the investors, regulators and legislators. That's when things fall into place, and we'll know we'll have done it all."