Glenn Britt: The Most Interesting Man in Cable

Back in the spring of 2002, Cablevision was embroiled in a high-profile controversy as it fiercely resisted carrying the YES network. Under the leadership of the Dolan family, the cable operator refused to pay the rates the new local sports network with New York Yankees games was asking.

Many cable executives were appreciative that Cablevision was taking such a tough stance as the price of sports rights continued to escalate. Glenn Britt was one of them.

"We support the Dolans 100%," he said at the time.

Yet, the chief of Time Warner Cable (TWC), the other major cable operator in the New York area, cut a deal to offer YES. Britt mentioned not wanting to deprive New Yorkers of the games, while they were still grappling with the aftershocks of 9/11.

Then, last month, Britt again displayed some appealing consumer sensitivity. As executives spoke about how a pricey cable subscription is well worth it, Britt offered up some cold water.

"There clearly is a growing -- unfortunately -- underclass of people who literally can't afford (it)," he said.

He advocated for more price-sensitive packages for struggling consumers, urging some industry collaboration.

"I think it would serve us well to worry about that group," he said.

To be sure, Britt's company had a financial stake in his benevolent positions. Carrying YES back then avoided some public alienation. And, TWC now is pushing a slimmed-down cable service hoping to keep cash-strapped customers from leaving.

Britt couldn't be accused of always placing principle over profits. Not even close. TWC raises prices, including now with its broadband service even as Internet access is a service increasingly vital for consumers.

But, Britt's sympathetic comments are part of the mix that -- to play off a famous tagline -- make him the Most Interesting Man in Cable.

To an outsider, he offers a certain inscrutability.

Behind closed doors, he may slam his fist on conference tables or show ruthlessness towards underperforming employees. Yet, outwardly, he seems to flip public perception as a cable executive with a conscience.

The Most Interesting Man in Cable may speak with the softest voice of any CEO. Even as head of the country's second-largest cable operator, seems refreshingly ingenuous and unassuming. He makes some stabs at humor that often fall flat, but he keeps trying.

(A panel of cable superstars he was on was urged to spice it up, but Britt said that could be tough: "We're pretty dull guys, we're here with dark suits and blue shirts.")

Britt doesn't appear to like journalists or investors much -- reporters want him to be unnecessarily controversial, investors are too worried about the near term -- but some would say who can blame him?

The Most Interesting Man in Cable seems secure, having engineered a succession plan with Rob Marcus being elevated to COO with the departure of Landel Hobbs. And, he seems likely to credit his staff for their innovations.

He's enthusiastic about all the bells and whistles coming to cable from the opportunity to set the DVR from Iceland to iPad streaming and t-commerce. And, he urges the industry to work together to continue R&D. But, he knows the business is not the MIT Media Lab.

"There's a tendency to focus way too much on technology and we have more technology than anybody knows what to do with," he said last month. "It's about the consumer. It's about understanding pretty simple needs. They are changing and it's about our ability to do it together."

On most occasions, The Most Interesting Man in Cable is likely the smartest guy in the room. But, he wouldn't want you to know it. It's easier to keep an advantage that way.

Britt seems to be remarkably prescient and harbor an oracular business sense. He seems to always be a step ahead, helping keep TWC strong and often moving the agenda forward for the cable industry.

Go back to 2008 when cable networks thought they had free reign to make full episodes of their shows available online for free. Duh, that would lessen the value of a cable subscription, but no one on the operator side seemed to protesting.

Hello, Mr. Britt. He made it clear that if the trend continued, TWC would be unwilling to pay networks as much in carriage fees.

That gave networks pause -- several months later, ESPN put two popular shows behind a pay wall -- and seemed to spark interest in a concept known as "TV Everywhere," which limits online access to people who also pay for TV service.

Last year in that vein, Britt again showed a desire to blunt any cord-cutting in a wide-ranging distribution deal with Disney. TWC became the first operator to cut a deal that limited access to ESPN3.com -- which simulcasts most major ESPN events -- to those who pay for both its broadband and TV service.

The emergence of retransmission consent payments has roiled cable operators. Broadcasters are now seeking payments for rights to carry their stations. In several disputes, stations have taken themselves off the air, notably twice with Cablevision.

But last year, TWC made a shrewd move insulating itself against that as it negotiated a deal with the Sinclair broadcast group, which carries a slew of Fox stations and is hardly afraid of a fight.

But TWC cut a side deal with Fox ensuring that even if Sinclair opted for a blackout, TWC customers would still have access to "American Idol" and the NFL playoffs.

Sinclair was apoplectic and felt Fox had removed much of its leverage. Indeed, TWC had ensured it and a deal with Sinclair was reached with no service interruptions.

Early this year, Britt joined several industry executives at a Senate hearing about improving the retrans negotiating process. Britt remained calm, though at times did show some feistiness - as much as he can muster with his soft-spoken way.

He showed some diplomacy by suggesting broadcasters should be paid, but the current climate for deal-making -- which is under FCC review -- is flawed.

"It is the consumer that is being held hostage and that isn't a good thing ... we're not denying the value of the networks or whether there should be payment," Britt told Sen. John Kerry and others. "There should and there is value, but how do we decide the amount without disrupting the public?"

Britt recently has shown he knows where the cable business is going -- and it's not cable. Broadband will be TWC's principal business someday soon as the number of customers overtakes its cable subscribers.

"Broadband is becoming more and more central to peoples' lives," Britt said recently. "As we (do) market research, it really is becoming our primary product."

TWC is raising prices as demand increases there. Yet, it bills its "TV Essentials" package in Manhattan and Northeast Ohio as a discount opportunity. The slimmed-down offering includes the likes of TBS, FX and USA, but no ESPN or YES.

For the Most Interesting Man in Cable, the two moves might mark a balancing act showing business acumen and consumer consciousness. Those are qualities that could make Britt a good candidate to lead the FCC.

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1 comment about "Glenn Britt: The Most Interesting Man in Cable".
  1. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , July 19, 2011 at 3:41 p.m.

    Despite all the glowing terms such as "consumer sensitivity", viewers in the USA still can't watch what they want, when they want, at any price, decades after the technology to do so has been available.

    The keyword here is not sensitivity, but rather what all the executives - and the author - describe as being "shrewd". Depriving viewers of the ability to simply watch a program, at any price, is hardly being shrewd. It's being stupid, greedy and short-sighted.

    The music file-sharing situation and outcome should be seen as a hard lesson by the subjects of this article, but I doubt it will be. If the people want something badly enough, they'll find a way to get it, despite the hurdles and brick walls placed between them and the product by all those "shrewd" execs.

    The key is to first find the best way to make the product easily available to as many consumers as possible, even if that involves steep discounts or offering it at no cost. Only then, after a solid audience has been established, should the price adjustment game begin. This marketing technique is simple and ancient, and it still works. It certainly worked for P.T.Barnum.