Tom Adams

Tom Adams

Interview Date: April 28, 2023
Interviewer: Stewart Schley

STEWART SCHLEY: Greetings, ahoy, and welcome to this episode of the Hauser Oral History Series presented by the Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center. We are coming to you from midtown Manhattan, April of 2023, and the gentleman to my right last night was inaugurated into the Cable Hall of Fame. No mean feat and congratulations, Tom Adams, for that honor.

TOM ADAMS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SCHLEY: And now the next day, the day after, you’re taking time to reminisce but also look forward with us about what you’ve done and what you see in the future of the cable telecommunications industry. And what I’m excited about is we get to talk a lot about the nitty-gritty of operating a cable company, day to day operations in all the permutations. So that has been your specialty and let’s talk about it a little bit. A question I always like to ask is when you were seven years old you probably didn’t — maybe you dreamed of being an astronaut or a fireman, I don’t know, but you probably didn’t dream of being an executive vice president of operations in the cable industry, but that you became. How did you get into this business?

ADAMS: It was sort of by chance. I went to college in the engineering path and I graduated with a BS in engineering and I was literally dead broke. I sold everything I had in Miami to get gas to drive home to Binghamton, New York and by chance my cousin was at my house. My mother was a great cook and he knew where to get a free lunch and he worked for the local cable company which was New Channels at the time. And so we had the chitchat, you know, what are you going to do, and I said, “I’ve interviewed with a company in Saudi Arabia and I interviewed with a company in Iran and I interviewed with a company in Houston, Texas” and I told him I didn’t like any of those foreign countries. And so I said, “I just want to put gas in my pickup truck and get to happy hour” and he says, “Right now we’re doing this thing where we’re changing out descramblers to descramble HBO.” HBO at the time was the only pay service that was available. And I said, “I could probably do that.” And so I went down to interview with the general manager and he hired me and I had a four-week job riding around the truck changing out these descramblers.

SCHLEY: Were these in-premise descramblers or they outside —

ADAMS: They were in-premise descramblers so every home had a descrambler. It actually was a big box. I mean it was about this big and we were changing it with a one that was about this big. And so really, you’d just go in and unscrew it and unplug it and screw the new one in and plug it in and make sure it’s working and I’m off.

SCHLEY: But it’s not trivial because it was intrusive. You had to go into a customer’s home and that probably was instructive for your career to follow.

ADAMS: It was. But I think they did it right. I mean they purposely scheduled these appointments after 5:00. So they wanted to make it as convenient — and this was 1977 so everything then was pretty much Monday through Friday 8:00 to 5:00, but they had the foresight to say this is intrusive and so let’s make it convenient and do it on weekdays and weekends, evenings on weekdays and weekends. So that was when I was working and that’s when we had the best success rate.

SCHLEY: You talked about HBO being nominal premium channel at the time. What was cable television like in 1977?

ADAMS: Now, put it in perspective from a dollar perspective. So standard cable or basic cable, the terminology that was used then, was $7 a month. HBO, a single channel, was $8 a month. So you put the two together you’ve got a $15 a month service which was very expensive for a lot of people at the time.

SCHLEY: Sure. Not everybody took HBO.

ADAMS: Not everybody took cable.

SCHLEY: Yeah, that’s true.

ADAMS: And so it was a very new concept because if you think about it, TV was free over the air so most people turned on their television with their antenna and they got two, three broadcast channels and a PBS in a lot of cases and that was what you watched. You watched Lawrence Welk. Everybody knew Lawrence Welk or Ed Sullivan.

SCHLEY: Of course.

ADAMS: Those were the shows everybody watched so there wasn’t a lot of variety. So then when you had cable and you were bringing in WOR from New York via microwave, WPIX, Madison Square Garden was one that was also brought in via eastern microwave. And you added this diversity of choice that people just gravitated to and said, “Wow, there’s a whole big world out there of stuff to view and it’s not just the Ed Sullivan Show anymore.” So that was really the beginning of it and you get to — and you got to watch in some cases archives of old series. Back then it was the Three Stooges. You have to be my age to remember that, but that was what people were watching. I mean you could watch episode after episode, sort of get consumed by it. That was what cable was like back then.

SCHLEY: And you mentioned not everybody got cable. What do you suppose the penetration rate was in Binghamton, New York around the late ’70s?

ADAMS: In Binghamton when we were starting out it was around in the 30s [30%], but we quickly got it up over 50 and when I was — when New Channels merged with Time Warner Binghamton was in the 80s. And places that we ran the New Channels up in what we called the north country, Messina and Malone, were 99% penetrated. In fact, we used to keep tabs on the little old lady who did not take it, waiting for her obituary to come so we could reach 100%.

SCHLEY: But it was 99% because that was the only means to receive television, right?

ADAMS: If you’ve ever been up in northern New York, that is the entertainment. And so to be 90% penetrated plus there is not surprising. You know, that’s changed with the advent of competition. No longer 90% penetrated because they have alternative means of entertainment or alternative sources, but that’s what it was like back then. You were the only game in town.

SCHLEY: What was — you mentioned the M word, microwave. How did signals hop around from distant locations to your head end or your processing facility?

ADAMS: There were no satellite delivered services at the time. That was a technology that was on the forefront but had yet to deploy. And so to get WPIX and WOR and Madison Square Garden and HBO at the time out distributed to these headends was via microwave hop. So microwave hops would go so many miles, it had a limitation, and then it would get picked up and reamplified and sent. So you had these hops that went over really the northeastern corridor through a company that the Newhouses owned then, Eastern Microwave.

SCHLEY: Talk about New Channels itself. It was allied with the Newhouse publishing company? What was the sort of heritage of New Channels?

ADAMS: The Newhouse organization started as a newspaper company. So they were a newspaper company and then they went into television and radio, magazines, and cable was the hot thing and so they got into cable and started investing in cable systems, mostly franchising and building from the ground up, but they did buy some existing cable systems in Alabama and a few other — Binghamton was one that was an existing. There were actually three different cable companies in Binghamton.

SCHLEY: Really?

ADAMS: Yeah, and they ended up consolidating all three and buying all three. So that was how it started.

SCHLEY: And Tom, who ran New Channels?

ADAMS: New Channels at the time was run by Joel Fleming was the name and then his successor was Leo Calistri. They all reported to Bob Miron. There were three divisions. There was Vision Cable, Metrovision, and New Channels. Those were the three different cable companies that rolled up under the Newhouse organization.

SCHLEY: And they were willing, if you will, to roll the dice to invest in these new builds, territories, these franchises, on the faith that what? What was the business premise behind cable television?

ADAMS: It was a new media and the cable business was based on growth. So if you think about it, I told you what the rates were, you had to connect a lot of new customers and have a lot of recurring revenue to really recoup your investment into this plant that you were building, but when you saw the growth curve every year — as I said, we started at 30%, then it went to 40, then it went to 45, then it went to 50, and in some places went to 90. That was the future. And then you had the opportunity to enhance the product. So there were only 10 channels when we started. Ten channels went to 200 channels and it didn’t go there overnight so every year you’d add another 10, 15 channels and so you’d enhance the product and when you enhanced the product you tweaked the rate a little. And so once you get your penetration, you’re able to take more revenue out of that same home in various ways.

SCHLEY: So you had growth not only in customer base, but in ARPU or revenue per home, over —

ADAMS: Absolutely.

SCHLEY: Tom how did — we always talk about channel expansion. From an infrastructure standpoint how did we make room for more channels on a cable system?

ADAMS: Ha. Well, that’s the beauty of the cable infrastructure. It’s scalable. And so when you — when I started you had 300 megahertz systems and so you had a limitation of 30 channels.

SCHLEY: Each channel took six megahertz, is that correct?

ADAMS: That’s correct. It was an analog in an analog world. So, single channel would take six megahertz and so you would keep going from 300 to 500 to 750 to one gig, but in the middle of that became the digital revolution where you could take that six megahertz of bandwidth and squeeze 10, 12 channels in there.

SCHLEY: But in the analog days when you were early into the business was it amplification? Did we change out the amplifiers to yield more bandwidth?

ADAMS: Yes. You had to change out the amplifiers and you had to respace them. So you had to, as you went to higher frequencies, you had to have your amplifiers closer together. I mean more of them and change out the old ones. So it wasn’t just changing out electronics. You had to cut out the whole can, put a new set of cans in, redesigned with different spacing.

SCHLEY: And I’m asking this for a reason because we’re going to get to it later in our conversation, but amplifiers obviously extended our signal deep into the network, but they also introduced a little bit of noise, each successive amplifier. So if I’m at the end of a cascade am I happy or not happy as a homeowner?

ADAMS: Those are great questions. I wouldn’t expect someone to know that level of detail, but I’m impressed.

SCHLEY: It’s going to get worse.

ADAMS: So we had a term that you probably heard called signal to noise ratio and so as you went in the higher frequencies, as you get out to the end of the line, you’d have this distortion or signal to noise levels that you wanted to monitor. So if you maintained your plant, which I was a stickler on, it didn’t matter whether you were at the end of the line or you were at the beginning. So if you had a well-maintained plant your quality of service was no different whether you were at the end or at the beginning.

SCHLEY: Really?

ADAMS: Now, that’s a big if because back then the discipline to maintain your plant was very hard.

SCHLEY: Never-ending, I presume.

ADAMS: It was never-ending. And so you would have what we call RF leakage and you’d monitor your leakage and your leakage would tell you where you have penetrable defects in your plant. But if you kept all that tight and you kept your tweak, your ratio, high end and low end where it’s supposed to be and didn’t fool with it, you had good performance all the way to the end. So if you had good engineering principles and a really good operator you had good service throughout the whole network.

SCHLEY: I didn’t — okay. And is this what you were doing early in your career? Were you managing plant or what was your role as you began to progress?

ADAMS: When I grew as an individual my role became broader which is what you would expect. And back then these were sort of autonomous operations. They weren’t like they are today and so when you were a general manager of the system, you’re responsible for everything. You were responsible for the marketing, the government affairs, the technical operations, the plant maintenance. And so to be successful you had to make sure that you had good lieutenants. You had to have a good, we used to call them chief techs back then. And if you had a good chief tech that person knew the importance of plant maintenance and the quality of the craft, so to speak, and so that was what I always focused on because I knew I couldn’t do it all myself so I had to make sure I had the right people in those key positions.

SCHLEY: Were you the GM though of that system?

ADAMS: I was a GM in a couple of locations, yes. I was the GM in suburban Pittsburgh with New Channels, in Alabama in Montgomery. I ran an operation there in my early days and then later back in Syracuse. So yes, that was a term that I don’t think exists anymore, general manager, but yeah, that was what we did.

SCHLEY: Did you have an instinctive facility for hiring people? How did you identify this woman, this man is going to be the right person for the job or not back in the day?

ADAMS: I wish there was a pure way to do that. Some of it is instinct. Some of it is having fundamentals that you look for in an individual which is the way I thought about it. I was looking for certain qualities. Not necessarily experience in the field because you didn’t have a lot of people coming with cable experience.

SCHLEY: It was new, yeah.

ADAMS: But I looked for people who really had heart and work ethic and had leadership skills. And if they had those things, I knew they would get excited about the cable business and do well.

SCHLEY: And you could teach them the business, teach them the job.

ADAMS: I’d teach them the business, yes.

SCHLEY: The “Thrilla in Manila” was an important inflection point in the development of this industry and Tom, I don’t know the date, if it was 1980, ’79, [Oct. 1, 1975] but tell us about what that was and why it mattered.

ADAMS: It was really the first inkling of pay per view or pay for a program.

SCHLEY: It was a boxing match.

ADAMS: Yeah, this was a boxing match and it was a big deal and it was hyped through the media. Boxing was very popular at that time and this boxing match had the two premier boxers in the world.

SCHLEY: Heavyweight sluggers.

ADAMS: And everybody wanted to see this.

SCHLEY: Name them please.

ADAMS: Pardon?

SCHLEY: Name them, the two fighters.

ADAMS: I uh —

SCHLEY: Muhammad Ali.

ADAMS: Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

SCHLEY: There you go, thank you. You may continue.

ADAMS: Yes. I actually saw Joe Frazier box in Scranton, Pennsylvania as a young boy.

SCHLEY: Awesome.


SCHLEY: Okay, but now they’re matched up in Manila.

ADAMS: They’re matched up in Manila and people wanted to watch this. It was something that the promoters knew that they could charge a pretty good fee for and people could watch it. And so they worked with our industry, the cable industry, to be the distributor. Because before then they used to do, if you remember, they used to do closed circuit.

SCHLEY: Exactly, you’d go to a theater or a venue —

ADAMS: You’d go to a theater and they would charge tickets and it would be distributed via closed circuit. So this was really a closed-circuit concept to the home. And we used technology that was pretty crude at the time. We had both positive traps were being used. There was some limited addressability, but it was mostly positive traps so people would come up and get a cylinder and they would actually pick it up at the store or we’d deliver it to them —

SCHLEY: I did not know that.

ADAMS: — and they’d connect it to their drop and it would authorize that event in their home. That’s basically how it worked and it was an operational challenge to get those out, to do the billing for it, to make sure when you flipped the switch when the event comes on that it all works and you held your breath a little bit and it worked for the most part.

SCHLEY: What do you suppose the price was? Do you have any recollection? Was it like 10 bucks?

ADAMS: You’d have to go back and look at the history, but I believe it was in the $20 range.

SCHLEY: It also was important because it was one of the events that inaugurated this revolution of satellite transmission of television, correct?

ADAMS: Yeah, there was more satellite distribution at the time so the microwave distribution had sort of gone by the wayside. They were now delivering signals via satellite and so you were able to get those distributions. They were big C band dishes at all of our head ends that we were looking at the various satellites. The problem at that juncture was getting enough satellites in the sky with transponders to get these signals down. And so that was the challenge and so they couldn’t get these satellites up fast enough to get the distribution in the orbit that you had to look at to see these satellites.

SCHLEY: That you had to point at. And these were people like Ted Turner, maybe other entrepreneurs putting up — really creating a national footprint for their television channels.

ADAMS: Yeah, there were companies that that’s what they did.

SCHLEY: You became the division president successor to New Channels for Time Warner Cable.

ADAMS: Yeah, so as I said, in 1995 New Channels merged with Time Warner. They included their assets into call it TWAN, Time Warner Advanced Newhouse.

SCHLEY: Okay, why not.

ADAMS: And that happened in 1995 and they asked me to go start a division for Time Warner. We were — Time Warner was a decentralized model. They went and created operations by market DMA. So wherever there was a television market they created a division. So Binghamton was my hometown, they asked me to move back to my hometown where I knew everybody and everybody knew me to start a division. It was like manna from heaven. So it was great.

SCHLEY: Go figure. And then what was kind of the size and scope of the operation you were heading?

ADAMS: It was, again, it was a television market so Binghamton went out to Corning and to Cooperstown in the other direction and north to Courtland, if you know that area well, and south to the Pennsylvania border. So we had about 200,000 customers and so at the time that was pretty good sized. Today it’s small in comparison to where I finished my career.

SCHLEY: You would have made the charts in the day as a pretty formidable cable system.

ADAMS: It was a pretty decent sized division, yes.

SCHLEY: Offer us, if you would, a characterization of the cable industry at large. We still had — you had neighboring systems that were owned by different companies. We still had sort of a patchwork across the country, would you say or?

ADAMS: Yeah, it was, you know, consolidation took a while. It didn’t all happen overnight. It wasn’t just consolidation of a number of companies, it was consolidation of real estate. So there was the consolidation of companies. Then it was wouldn’t it make more sense if our operations were contiguous? So then there was horse trading. So you would have company A trade these properties with company B so that you could have contiguous operations which helped with market scale and marketing aspects, etc.

SCHLEY: And did that occur in your region? Were you —

ADAMS: It happened over time. It didn’t happen in one year or two years. It happened in 20 years. I think it would still happen more today if the technology was like it was back then. I can name a lot of different places where Charter is not the dominant provider in a state or a DMA and we’d love to do some horse trading with another MSO, but the problem is they’re not self-sustained systems like they were and so to unwind that from a national backbone technologically, national call centers, national billing systems, to carve that out and move it over is very, very hard.

SCHLEY: I appreciate that.

ADAMS: Very, very hard to do and so you don’t see much of that happen anymore.

SCHLEY: I wanted to talk to you about the ’90s, the mid ’90s. You had joined Time Warner Cable and the technology of the cable industry was undergoing change. We weren’t always sure what that change would be, but you had a lot of interest and investment in interactive television and you had the beginnings of the burbling of this thing called the internet happening. But can you kind of characterize that time and what your — how your field of vision was kind of expanding technologically?

ADAMS: I’ll try and make it as concise, but I don’t know if a lot of people really understand the crossroads that happened at that time. So we’ll go back to this little cable system in Elmira, New York. We had this big server farm, millions of dollars. It was scaled to have 1,000 customers. That was it. These big mainframes to handle all this processing. And so we said man, if we have to replicate this in every little head end that we have the math doesn’t work. It’s not scalable. And so we quickly figured out that, you know, you’re better off investing in connecting these systems, eliminating these headends. So we took Elmira, connected it to Corning, connected it to Binghamton, and eliminated these individual headends. And then you created a national backbone where you started connecting to New York City and then to Chicago. And that was really the advent of the infrastructure where the internet was born.

SCHLEY: And how were we physically connecting these disparate headends?

ADAMS: Fiber optics. It was really a combination of us building fiber where it didn’t exist or leasing circuits from companies who did have the capacity to do that.

SCHLEY: So there was this duality to fiber though because at the macro level you’re connecting these disparate headends. Later or around the same time you started to use fiber to extend your signals deeper into neighborhoods, correct?

ADAMS: It was simultaneous.

SCHLEY: Same time?

ADAMS: Yes. So remember I talked about before we started this we had a limitation with the modem of a two-mile round trip and part of that was the amplifier cascade and the signal degradation when you go out and you go —

SCHLEY: That’s as far as you could get.

ADAMS: — 30, 40 amps deep, it didn’t work on the return path. And so cable systems primarily were one way, but you had to have them two-way to do internet. So as you activated the return you had to eliminate those long cascades. So we came up with an architecture called node plus six. So you would be no deeper than six amps in cascade versus 30 or 40.

SCHLEY: Brilliant, okay.

ADAMS: Now, to do that you had to run fiber to the neighborhood, as we called it. And so that’s really as simply as I can describe that concept. You went from 30, 40 amps deep in an entire city to little neighborhoods of node plus six or six amps deep.

SCHLEY: At scale the fast internet does not happen if you don’t rearchitect these systems in this way, does it?

ADAMS: You would not have the ability on the return path to be clean and to do the speeds that we do.

SCHLEY: So could you talk about the introduction, the early days of high-speed internet service and from an operational and logistics perspective how you made that happen?

ADAMS: Computers weren’t what you see today. They were big devices and —

SCHLEY: I had one.

ADAMS: Yeah, we all sort of had one and there wasn’t a lot of memory space, storage space, on them and there wasn’t a lot of throughput, you know, to do interactive services. And so most computers when we launched in 1995 and really through most of the ’90s, you had — to complete the install you had to open up the case and put in a NIC card. And with some training people could do it, but any time you open up a piece of electronics you’re risking something bad happening.

SCHLEY: (laughter) Right.

ADAMS: And it did happen and so people were upset when you opened up their computer and they lost memory or it didn’t work like it did before. So those were some of the challenges that we dealt with, but we were able to overcome them. But quickly the computer industry changed because they had the foresight to see what this was going to bring and so they started changing their design and all that capacity was built into every computer that was sold after that date.

SCHLEY: But, Tom, in the early days how long might it take to install a high-speed internet customer?

ADAMS: It wasn’t as long as you might think. It was about an hour. Yeah, 45 minutes to an hour. Once you became skilled at it, you’d go in there and open that up. Because the line was already in the home, it was pretty much active, and basically all you’re doing is you’re opening up, you’re putting a NIC card in, you’re hooking it up to the Ethernet to the modem, and off you go.

SCHLEY: You had a modem. But it did take a while and I guess the takeaway I had is the consumer demand was really there though, wasn’t it? You saw this happen in front of your eyes?

ADAMS: You know, when — I was amazed. I had no idea what the take rate was going to be. If you remember, it was AOL and that was the buzz and people were primarily doing email. Email and there was some web surfing, there was some information available.

SCHLEY: Terribly slow though, right? It was painfully slow.

ADAMS: It was so slow and that was the problem with the information exchange. email you could live with on a dialup connection, but downloading information, forget it. I mean it was —

SCHLEY: Or God forbid you tried to get a piece of video to play.

ADAMS: That was impossible, yeah. That was impossible on dialup. If you did that you had a lot of patience.

SCHLEY: But even so, you were surprised by the demand?

ADAMS: We just had a little bit of press on this trial in Elmira, New York and we were flooded with people wanting to subscribe. And at that point we had — we weren’t sure what we were going to charge for this, but when we saw the demand with limited noise in the market, we said we probably underthought what the price level should be.

SCHLEY: Did you go out at $20-30 or do you remember the price points?

ADAMS: It was actually under $20. We went out at like $15 in this trial, but we knew that we could — we would go out higher when we did the full-scale launch, but that’s what we learned.

SCHLEY: But I want to ask you, it’s an interesting time because previously the industry had been through a pretty bruising regulatory environment. The 1992 Cable Act put a crimp in your sales and required cable companies to roll back rates or to cap rates and the industry economically wasn’t as healthy, I don’t think, in the early ’90s. You’re dismissing that viewpoint.

ADAMS: It was short-lived, it really was.

SCHLEY: The impact was short-lived?

ADAMS: The impact was short-lived from my perspective and Tom Rutledge, who I worked for, he — with our political affairs team he created a concept called — I’m trying to think of the name of it now. It was a sort of a social pact. We would agree to provide all these things to the consumer in return for some relief on the rate regulation.

SCHLEY: Right, I remember.

ADAMS: And so Washington bought off on it and then as the advent of internet came, the whole video service became not as critical as the internet.

SCHLEY: That’s what I was kind of getting to, okay.

ADAMS: So the internet became the avenue for full deregulation, so to speak.

SCHLEY: And Tom, how did you support internet customers differently from how you might have supported video customers? Was it just bolted onto a customer service infrastructure or what did you do?

ADAMS: In the call center world we had a separate support group because it’s a different animal and people were still learning the internet and how it all works and what are the potential problems and is that our problem or is that the server problem of somebody else out on the web? And so you had to have people who were skilled to be able to answer those questions and diagnose potential issues in the home. So we had a separate support group. In the days we outsourced it because we had trouble sort of building our own initially and then later, we learned how to do that and we built our own support infrastructure. But really, it was a whole separate product line and you had your video product which was different and you had your data product and some customers would buy one or the other and we wanted to make sure that we got people to buy both of them and that was the advent of creating the bundle.

SCHLEY: Right. And then at some point you introduced voice service into this mix as well.

ADAMS: Yeah. I mean if you go back, I was involved in a circuit switch trial at Time Warner in Rochester, New York. Now, circuit switch is a POTS line. It’s the way the telephone company does it, you know. And very archaic and so we had these big switches in the headend and —

SCHLEY: Heavy iron kind of like a lot of equipment?

ADAMS: Yeah, it was unbelievable. And once you get in that business it’s hard to get out, regulatory-wise. We had a petition for years to really get out of that and, much like the phone company is doing today and has been for the past 20 years. Because phone service from its invention was a critical service and so — but we learned that what you could do with a VOIP. Voice over internet protocol was actually a lot more efficient.

SCHLEY: Than the circuit switch architecture?

ADAMS: Than the circuit switch, in so many ways. And we just switched gears and went everything all in there.

SCHLEY: You talk about the bundle, now you have three products. You can do the triple play I guess in terms of pricing and delivery, but your world as an operations person was getting more complicated. No doubt, right? You have more —



ADAMS: Absolutely it was.

SCHLEY: Okay, whew.

ADAMS: I mean our techs would be scratching their head, we’re now going to be in the phone business? But it’s exciting. I mean that’s what the fun was is it was not boring.

SCHLEY: But how did you get up in the morning as a — you’re running large divisions of a large cable company — and decide what to prioritize that day? How did you figure out the job, if you will?

ADAMS: I don’t think that was that difficult. I think you can compartmentalize all the tasks that you need to do structurally and do it in an organized fashion, but the key to success is really with the people and training and educating the people, motivating people to be good at their craft and give them the tools to do that and compensate them when they perform at a high level. And that’s always been a fundamental of mine from the early days and I advanced that fundamental with technology in my latter years of my career.

SCHLEY: And at this time the skill sets you were asking of your field representatives, the people who were the interface between the customer and the cable plan, were changing a bit though, right? You mentioned you needed internet specialists. And so how did the industry and how did you develop those qualities or find those people or train them to do their jobs well?

ADAMS: One of the organizations that came about as part of the industry was the SCTE, the Society of Cable Television Engineers, and the primary mission of that organization was to be the warehouse of training and curriculum for the workforce. So there was a marriage between the MSO partners of the SCTE and the vendors, the technology vendors, to really create this curriculum in all levels of the business whether it be IP, RF, how do you install a NIC card and the details of that, and then creating curriculum for the technician to learn it or the call center rep to learn it. And then there was another company from Jones Intercable. They did their own thing as a commercial endeavor and that was the NCTI and that still exists. In fact, the young lady who owns and operates that, she was at the event last night and I got to talk to her. [Stacey Slaughter]

SCHLEY: Indeed she was.

ADAMS: And at Charter I used both of those curriculums as an incentive for our employees to self-progress as I called it. And so we had two different levels of education for our front-line employees. One was what we would provide what I would call on the clock, the things you needed to know and be skilled at to do the job that we asked you to do today. But then we had self-progression. So if you wanted to advance and accelerate your advancement you could go online and take these courses and test through them and advance your skill level to be ready for your next promotion. So once you completed that curriculum you were rewarded financially and you were put to the front of the line for the next opening of the next level technician or the next level leadership role. So you had this concept of your growth in your career, you’re in control. And people who are highly motivated, they really embraced that, said, “Man, this is a great opportunity. I can do whatever I want to do. I can grow as fast as I want to grow. I just have to be able to put forth the effort.”

SCHLEY: But they knew that path existed so you could take advantage of it.

ADAMS: But you know, there’s a great contribution to the business because when your people are motivated and they’re better trained, they’re better skilled, the quality of craft is better and so when you do a trouble call or a phone call and it doesn’t have to be repeated because you fail or didn’t do it properly, it’s a great return on the business. So that money was well spent investing in the workforce. I left that when I left and retired. It was one of the most important things you have to do.

SCHLEY: I can tell. Did you as an operations executive, did you used to spend time at call centers? Did you roam around and listen to calls or?

ADAMS: No. There’s two places that I would spend time to really get a feel for the business. One is the call center and the only way you really know is you sidejack. You sit down, you pick a rep —

SCHLEY: Really?

ADAMS: You sidejack in, you sit down, they get a little nervous when you do that, but —

SCHLEY: Little pressure there, the boss is here.

ADAMS: Yeah, but you can make them feel comfortable.

SCHLEY: You want to hear the interaction.

ADAMS: I want to hear both sides. I want to hear what the customer — how the customer perceives us and I want to hear how well that rep is responding to those questions from the customer. And I would sidejack in the video queue and then I would sidejack in the data queue and the voice queue because you want to hear it all. But then the other place that was critical was what we call the dispatch center where, you know, air traffic control for all the technicians in the field. And you could really understand how well or how poorly organized we were by the noise that happened in the dispatch center. And that place you could just sit in there because at one point it was on the radios and then it transitioned to cell phones, but you could get a real feel for where you have opportunities in the field operations by sitting in dispatch.

SCHLEY: Reminds me of the old show Taxi where they had a guy who was sending the cabs out. Can you talk about — I think your last assignment with Time Warner was running the Wisconsin group of Time Warner Cable. Is that correct?


SCHLEY: But you had had this steady progression and your purview continued to expand. Not to put you on the spot, but I’ll put you on the spot. What made Time Warner Cable different from the rest of the cable industry or was the rest of the cable industry the same big company with different logos on the trucks?

ADAMS: Time Warner was different. I mentioned early on when I started there it was decentralized. So they had this organizational structure where you had these autonomous divisions with division president and the division president was responsible for everything soup to nuts and delivering on a plan every year including the P&L, the growth. And so every division had their piece to contribute to the whole. And as the industry had competition and you had national product distributors like DirecTV —

SCHLEY: Sure, the satellite guys, yeah.

ADAMS: You had to change the organizational structure. And so Time Warner at the time started to consolidate these autonomous divisions and they made regions. And so that’s where I ended up moving from the Carolinas out to the Midwest and into the Midwest region and they were trying to get to a national level. Never really succeeded which played well for Charter to be able to take over Time Warner and finish the job, so to speak.

SCHLEY: And then from a technological profile Time Warner Cable was always interesting to us journalists because of odysseys like the Full Service Network near Orlando, Florida and a service called Start Over which was an interesting application of the DVR, but it was kind of an inventive company, and continues to be so through the lens of Charter from an exploratory standpoint, it seemed like.

ADAMS: They had a tremendous new product group. Tom Rutledge was part of that at one point when he was at Time Warner and they were always willing to invest in the next great thing and take some risks and some gambles. The full-service network was one of them. Roadrunner high speed data was another. DVRs, they were one of the early adopters of DVR deployment and actually creating the DVR and the software to do that inherent in a cable box. That was another way of getting incremental revenue out of the home. So they were always — if you think about it the day-to-day operation was the responsibility of people like me, the division presidents, so you had the corporate group who could really sit back and be innovative. So to me that was part of the success of Time Warner at the time.

SCHLEY: They could draw on these resources.

ADAMS: Yeah, everybody had their role and what they were doing and it worked very well at that point in time until the advent of competition and national distribution. They had to change the model.

SCHLEY: Just a sideline, but you’re talking about DVRs. The product called Start Over that I think was invented by this new product group, what was that?

ADAMS: So we’ll start with DVR. So DVR is a fundamental. Built a hard drive into the cable box. So when you turned on a television show and you started watching it and you say geez, I kind of like this, I wish I would have started the recording, well, the answer is you could still push record because that was already capturing that on the hard drive. The moment you tune to that channel it was already caching that program. So that is the concept of Start Over. The only difference is you did that in the cloud. And so once that was — once you got over the regulatory hurdles you were able to create that functionality in the cloud. So anytime you tuned to a channel you could now activate this Start Over feature which was, again, something that came out of Time Warner.

SCHLEY: Pretty nifty. And then can you talk about your transition to Charter Communications and how that came about and why that came about?

ADAMS: (laughter) I was with Time Warner, I was content, I was happy, I was doing what was asked of me and —

SCHLEY: You were in Wisconsin at the last —

ADAMS: I was in Wisconsin and I got a call from a former colleague asking if I might be interested to help them take on this company that had recently come out of bankruptcy and try and grow it again. And when I heard the vision that they had and when I saw the numbers of the opportunity, penetration at Charter at the time had really gone back to in the ’30s, and I said man, you don’t have to do too much to make this better.

SCHLEY: You’d seen it work?

ADAMS: I’ve seen it work. And so I said man, there’s some risk, but not a lot. Because I gave up a lot to leave Time Warner and a lot of people when I left, they told me I was nuts. And I kept saying, “I don’t think I’m nuts. I think this is going to do well.” Now, I never would have dreamed at the time that we would go back and end up acquiring Time Warner and Newhouse and putting the three companies together. I was just focused on fixing Charter, growing the penetration at Charter. That was my focus.

SCHLEY: And what was Charter’s sort of market profile at the time? Where were you geographically? Was it dispersed as a company, an organization?

ADAMS: Charter, unlike Time Warner, which had very nice clusters and they had clusters in the Carolinas and Ohio and southern California and New York state, I mean they were just — it was beautiful. You could do it on a map and you said man, those are great properties and if you did the same thing with Charter and you put it on a map you’d say man, these are sort of — this is a hodgepodge, you don’t control anything. You had one major market was St. Louis and everything else was a lot of little stuff. But we knew that with fundamentals we could grow it as it was, but then when we put the three companies together, and I actually have these maps. So I drew these maps if you can picture three companies and the properties on the maps all in different colors.

SCHLEY: I can see it, yeah.

ADAMS: And now we rearchitected these operations to combine them and into what I would call mega marketing concepts. You put the city of Los Angeles together, you put the Carolinas together, you put a whole bunch of things together that were dispersed, Charter is now relevant. And then you add the Newhouse clusters in and the —

SCHLEY: Florida and elsewhere?

ADAMS: Yeah, the map just looked really pretty. This was part of the fun. I created 11 regions with a leader of each region —

SCHLEY: This is post Time Warner, Bright House acquisition?

ADAMS: Yes, putting the three companies together.

SCHLEY: Consolidated company.

ADAMS: Created 11 regions and 36 management areas that we ported up to those 11 regions. And I was able to capitalize on the talent from the three companies and I knew a lot of these people so I didn’t have to reinterview anybody. I knew these people, I worked at all three companies and I knew the skill set and so it was really just putting the people in the right seats and getting them comfortable with the operating model and getting them to feel the same way I did and said man, the upside of this is tremendous.

SCHLEY: I’m guessing based on our conversation you just did not sit back in your corporate chair, but you kind of got out there. Were you a traveler, were you a visitor of —

ADAMS: I was continuously on the road and I visited almost every location at least once that we have.

SCHLEY: Did you still drop in on call centers from time to time?

ADAMS: Yeah, I did. They probably even got more nervous when I did that.

SCHLEY: Corporate’s here.

ADAMS: And sometimes I was pleasantly surprised in a good way and sometimes I was really disappointed. But when people knew that I was going to do that, and I didn’t tell anybody I was going to do that, it was more —

SCHLEY: Parachuted in?

ADAMS: — I would tell them that moment, “I’m going to go spend an hour in the dispatch.” I can tell you, the word got out. Every visit subsequent everybody had their house in order. But it was positive and what we learned was that the leaders on the ground were the ones that needed to be doing that, not the guy from corporate who comes out once in a while. And so they picked up on that pretty quick and they started doing those types of things, the simple fundamentals to say I need to know what’s going on in my house.

SCHLEY: So that culture permeated over time?

ADAMS: Yes. It happened quickly.

SCHLEY: Do you still think the business is a local business?

ADAMS: Yes and no. I mean you have to have a national footprint, you have to have a national marketing message and pricing so that you can answer calls centrally, but the execution is still local. It’s always going to be local and so you have to have talented people, people who have the tools to get the job done locally, and the authority to make decisions and get the job done locally. Now, they don’t have division president autonomy like I had in the early days.

SCHLEY: In the day, yeah.

ADAMS: But they have operational autonomy if it’s done right and they have the resources and the tools to do what’s right to get the job done.

SCHLEY: But it was different working at the corporate level, I’m sure, from being in the field all the time. What was hard about it? What were your challenges?

ADAMS: What was hard is I wasn’t able to sit down in the call center every day or the dispatch center every day. That was the hardest part.

SCHLEY: That’s an adjustment.

ADAMS: I always said to the people in the field, because everybody says, “Oh, what do I got to do to get to corporate?” I said, “First of all you should cherish the job you have because that’s where I want to be. I want to be in your seat.”

SCHLEY: Yeah, pal, let’s not forget this.

ADAMS: Don’t be in a hurry to get to corporate because you might be disappointed. It’s a different world. You’re sort of removed from it as you’re sitting so far back from the day-to-day operations that you have to trust the lieutenants that you have out there and you have to have the checks and balances in place to make sure that they’re doing all the things that you would do if you were sitting out there. And that’s really the difference.

SCHLEY: I mean since, Tom, maybe 2014, ’15 it’s no secret that there’s been to the phenomenon of video cord cutting across the nation that has occurred. I get that. How — and then there’s this commensurate upswing in demand for higher and higher speeds of internet connectivity and subscribers to that service. How have those phenomenon changed the game operationally? What has been the impact of this product shift?

ADAMS: First thing you mentioned is the consumption rate of data is increasing exponentially and it’s application based. Some of it is streaming. Streaming takes a lot of data.

SCHLEY: That it does.

ADAMS: So doesn’t video. And video of all types. So Ring, you know, people have these video cameras in their houses and so all these new applications consume more data. So you have to continually scale your network to meet that demand. And again, that’s the beauty of the network we built. It is scalable. And so the next generation is going to do a number of different things to be able to scale this network for the future demand and the industry. I keep saying this and someday the street’s going to get the message — that the cable infrastructure can be scaled to meet that demand faster than any of our competitors’ infrastructure because to go build fiber everywhere would take a lifetime. To go build — well, wireless has limitations, that’s just not the answer. But to go upgrade the existing network or scale it to the next level is not that difficult and fairly inexpensive.

SCHLEY: That’s why I was asking you early on about the cascades and the amplification and I do think, I agree with you, that it’s underappreciated that this last mile connectivity is in place, it’s pretty well paid for, and it can do kind of what you ask it to do, you know? With adjustments.

ADAMS: Yeah, the one thing that is really groundbreaking is the amount of bandwidth that was allocated to upstream was very little and you can now change that and reallocate so as you have less and less demand on the video product, which is happening, you can reallocate that bandwidth now to data.

SCHLEY: To rev up the data.

ADAMS: And you could change your split and allocate more bandwidth and I think the first wave will be up to 200 megahertz of bandwidth versus 50.

SCHLEY: Just on upstream?

ADAMS: Just on upstream.

SCHLEY: Holy moly, okay.

ADAMS: And so you can get symmetrical gig service without a lot of investment.

SCHLEY: Without running a fiber connection to the side of the house?

ADAMS: You would not need to run fiber. No, the same line that you have. All you need to do is do what we talked about earlier. You need to go change out some of the electronics. You have to put a band pass filter in to change that split of what goes upstream versus what goes downstream, but it’s fairly inexpensive to do that because you don’t have to run new wires. You just have to put new electronics in the existing cans that are out there. You don’t even have to resplice new cans. So the ability to do that is pretty darn simple compared to what other providers are going to have to do.

SCHLEY: And it sounds like you never got terribly nervous about the fixed wireless phenomenon that’s been rising up in this category?

ADAMS: We did some fixed wireless trials at Charter and it had limitations, you know, line of sight limitations, all kinds of distance limitations. And it has a finite amount of bandwidth and once that’s consumed you’ve now got to have another transmitter. So it’s also something that has to be scaled and there is one advantage to wireless, it is the connectivity aspect. You don’t have to run a wire into the home. But I think the limitations will ultimately be the downfall of that and people who are trying wireless today will ultimately come back to wired type service.

SCHLEY: I wanted to ask you in the time we have left — you’re talking about upstream demand and revving up the network. During the health pandemic what was that experience like operationally? What did you see? What did you learn about the cable business that you didn’t know maybe before that?

ADAMS: In full honesty I think we were a little lucky, not just at Charter but at an industry perspective. We monitor the increase in bandwidth every year and so we saw this steady increase in bandwidth for all the reasons you mentioned before and so we also knew that there was a lot more competition coming our way. And so as an industry we felt that the best way to deal with that was to scale the network so that we could always make the claim that we’re faster than everybody else. And so the industry, without knowing Covid was going to happen — who did? — had already invested that capital.

SCHLEY: That’s the lucky part you’re talking about?

ADAMS: That’s the lucky part. So when Covid came we already had that capacity built into the network and we really didn’t skip a beat when it happened. We really didn’t. A little luck.

SCHLEY: It was profound though, right?

ADAMS: It was profound.

SCHLEY: I mean you had to be very proud of the work that had been done.

ADAMS: Yeah, and it was a little bit of luck because we built that extra capacity for different reasons, but thank God it was there.

SCHLEY: Two more. At last night’s inauguration somebody, it might have been or it might have been somebody introducing you on the video, talked about fun. They used that word. What has been fun about your lengthy career running cable television and telecom systems?

ADAMS: I think we talked about it already. There’s nothing boring. It was ever changing. When you went to work every day, it was not a repetitive task. It was something new, something exciting, and what you did today was going to be different tomorrow. And that permeated through the organization and so you had a lot of people all enjoying what they do and there was this energy that was — I felt it last night. Even the next generation of our industry, that same energy is there. The entrepreneurship, the excitement of the challenge of what we’re going to do next is really there. And the evolution of making everything better from a people perspective, from a technology perspective. I couldn’t imagine doing something else and having more fun than what I was able to do in the cable business. And the only regret I have is that I can’t turn back the time and be younger and do this for another 45 years. That’s my only regret.

SCHLEY: As the poem says, this is the blight man was born for. But what about — you’ve mentioned Mr. Rutledge’s name a couple of times and I know there are a lot of people you’ve worked with and crossed paths with, but maybe could you single out one, two, or maybe just a handful of people that were inordinately influential on Tom Adams’ career?

ADAMS: I will. So I mentioned how I got started in the business and the general manager at the time in Binghamton, New York, his name was Jim Streedy. And God bless him, he just passed away in the past few months. He was somebody who saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself and he saw that energy that I had and that work ethic that I had. Because I was having fun. I wasn’t actually seeing it, it just was natural for me.

SCHLEY: It was there, yeah.

ADAMS: And so he was always putting my name out there in the organization to — as somebody you should watch, this person has potential. And I also paid attention to him. He really taught me how to be a leader and to be a leader you have to be fair to everybody in the organization. You have to treat everybody as family even when they misbehave and even when they’re exceptional. You have to treat everybody fairly and he was just superb at it and so I learned that from him. And another person that I learned from, his name was Dan Cavallo. And Dan Cavallo I worked with — I worked for in Syracuse. He just had a different way of thinking about the business. And I think we’ve all met those kind of people that you say, “Man, I never thought about it that way.” He was that type of person and I’d always want to pick his brain to see how he viewed a certain topic or operational things.

SCHLEY: Was he a general manager or an ops guy?

ADAMS: He was a general manager in Syracuse when I first went there and I worked for him as an operations manager before I went off to take on the properties in Alabama and Pittsburgh, but I learned so much from him and to this day I still talk to him. Because I love the way he thinks and his perspective on things is really unique and I learned a lot from. And of course, the Miron family starting with Bob and now his children know me. And Steve. I mean just the most personable and pleasant people that you could ever meet in this industry and they’re really the best example of why this industry is so special is family business. The entrepreneurs that started it, really, really special people.

SCHLEY: What will — I promise the last question. What will newcomers to this business be working on five years from now? Where do you see us kind of heading?

ADAMS: I talked to the Charter leadership team that is now in place after my departure last night and I said to them, I said, “You know, it’s a lot like it was for me. You have some interesting challenges in front of you that you’re going to be well positioned to overcome, but they’re different than the challenges I had because we fixed all those things that were broken,” as I said earlier. Now they have different challenges. The competitive aspect, the streaming of video, the transition to data, solving the unserved and underserved rural areas. You have to get infrastructure out there for all the right reasons and I think it’s important that Charter be a company to help solve that problem and figure that out and to increase the ability of your data network to be ahead of the curve of the demands for tomorrow. Those are the big challenges and I believe Charter and other MSOs in the industry are already investing in that and they’ll be ready when that demand curve comes. So it’s really just that same excitement, just a new set of challenges from what I had.

SCHLEY: I can tell that you will miss the industry. I think the industry will probably miss you, but your imprint has been deep and it’s been a pleasure to talk about cable over the years and operations with Tom Adams, member of the new Cable Hall of Fame class of 2023. Congratulations again. Thank you for tuning in for the Hauser Oral History Series presented by the Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center. I’m Stewart Schley. It’s been a blast. See you soon.

ADAMS: Thank you.

Skip to content