John Malone, One-Time Cable Exec, Said: “I’m in the Connectivity Business!”

By Paul Maxwell Report Archives
Cover image for  article: John Malone, One-Time Cable Exec, Said: “I’m in the Connectivity Business!”

Of course, it really ain’t cable anymore. No how. The business today is connectivity. That means all the things that the cable (or spectrum or whatever) can make flow from one or more places to another.

That statement in the headline comes from the proverbial horse's mouth: Dr. John C. Malone, the one executive who has been ahead of every change in the business once known as cable ever since … well, possibly before you were born. John made this observation during a one-on-one discussion with Liberty Media’s Mike Fries (who reports to John and is widely regarded for his remarkably honest and straightforward pubic exchanges) at the Paley Center 25th International VirtualCouncil Summit.

Watching the exchange and thinking about John and the old days in cable got me thinking about growing up in the business. So, please indulge me for a moment while I stroll down memory lane.

I’ve watched John ever since he was at Jerrold helping sell set-top boxes to cash-strapped cable operators. (Note: I wish I knew how he got along with Donald Rumsfeld in those days.) I was happy to see him move to Denver to join Bob Magness at Tele-Communications, Inc. (the fabled TCI). I knew in which desk drawer Bob kept the bourbon. John brought with him John Sie who went on to create another storied programming entity (Starz/Encore, which my old friend George Stein initiated).

Malone, though, really knew how to effectively run a company … always thinking about structure and consequence. I got a backseat view of how he did it when the city council in Vail, Colorado, tried to leverage more out of TCI by rescinding its deal with TCI to provide cable service to the "city." Senior TCI executives Bill Brazeal and J.C. Sparkman called me (at the time I was a media reporter for a small publishing company) and asked if I’d like to join them to confront the city council. Back then I was living in the foothills west of Denver, so I said something like "When? Where? I’ll be there!" I met them at the Evergreen exit off I-70 and we went to the cable office in Vail … with me in the back seat with my leather wannabe pad folio for taking notes.

When we got there, J.C. quickly decided to send the local manager home … mostly so he could claim lack of knowledge. J.C. and Bill then set about discussing what to do … as I listened with amusement and wonderment.

J.C. wanted to simply shut down the system. "After all," he said, "we no longer have the right to provide service."

But, Bill said, "The Broncos play this weekend … should we just cut it off?"

"Best reason yet," J.C. said. "Who’s got a pen?"

They looked at me.

I created a card that said the system lost its franchise and anyone should just ask the mayor, a guy named Dobson who later went on to better constituent relations. (I forget the exact wording, as this was in the very early '70s.)

J.C. called the mayor's office and left a note that we would be in a restaurant in the city center, then the Ore House, having dinner.

Y'all should've seen Mayor John Dobson's face when he stormed into the restaurant visibly pissed off while Bill and J.C. sat there, stone-faced, with me.

Dobson approached us and said something on the order of "you have no right to shut down the cable and turn it off!"

J.C. quietly replied, "But you kicked us out of town. We can’t service Vail because you took away our rights!"

The immediate problem, of course, got solved the next couple of days. Service resumed. The Broncos, if I remember right, won the next weekend. I got a great story for the magazines.

And John Malone was right about how it would all work out. Now he sits on the top of a multi-faceted collection of global media companies all depending upon connectivity to make them financially successful … and critical to modern life.

I've long been writing and preaching that the nexus of modern communications infrastructure is the essence of the medium that makes modern life doable. John used the better, simpler word to label it: "connectivity."

It is the one word that enables all the rest of the elements to get paid.

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