Interview Date: Tuesday July 13, 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Series
Char Beales describes her switch from working in broadcasting to working in cable, taking on a job as part of a public policy research team at NCTA, at a time when greater opportunities for women existed in the industry. She describe how her experience in broadcast helped her develop the Cable Ace Awards as a way to promote the incipient program networks, generate attention to cable, and provide successful competition to broadcasters.
She reflects on what has enabled her to succeed, and in particular, what she is most proud of–for example, the turn around of CTAM [Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing]. She recaps the history of CTAM from its founding, when cable evolved from a retransmission service to programming. Beales explains how industry marketing changed radically over time. She emphasizes the importance of branding, not only for networks but the cable operators as well.
In addition, she predicts what she thinks should happen in cable, specifically in competition with satellite TV, reaching new segments of the market, maintaining current and evolving services, and attracting people into the industry in new ways. She looks at how customers embrace technological change.
She addresses challenges for women in the industry at a time of consolidation, but also recognizes pioneers like June Travis, Gail Sermersheim, and Kay Koplovitz, who pushed for recognition, creating their own organization. In addition, she offers advice to women who want a career in cable, and advances the idea that the operations side of cable would improve for women if an emphasis was placed more on marketing and customer focus. She offers examples of how women have been recognized through WIC [Women in Cable], the NCTA Vanguard Awards, CTAM and others. Beales discusses the balance between work and family and how that could be successfully achieved. She also explains her role at WIC and the organization’s accomplishments, including drawing women into the industry and helping them develop leadership skills. She concludes the interview by clarifying what is important for people in the business as well as those who wish to join.
INTERVIEWER: When you begin, you have to say your name in the camera and your position.
CHAR BEALES: Okay. I’m Char Beales, that’s C-h-a-r B-e-a-l-e-s, I’m president and CEO of CTAM.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me how you initially became involved in the cable industry?
BEALES: Well, it was actually good luck that brought me to the cable industry. I had a background in media research having worked as a media buyer and then director of research and promotion at several TV stations for CBS and NBC, and I was working for WRC in Washington, D.C., and I found that in the afternoon, I was so bored that I was closing my office door and turning up the sound on the TV, I knew that was a terrible thing. It was 1979 and so I had been reading in the trade magazines about cable taking off, and I decided that was where I wanted to go. So I called what was the most sophisticated cable system in America at the time called R-Tech, John Evans, and I wrangled an interview for a marketing position. And in order to prepare for that, I called the NCTA to see if I could get information on the cable industry, and I was chatting with the receptionist on the telephone and she said, oh, research, our entire research department either was promoted or just quit, I think I can get you an interview. So she did with Tom Wheeler who was the head of the NCTA at the time. I came in and it was a different kind of research, it was public policy research, but it was very interesting to me and Tom Wheeler was an incredible dynamo, Catherine Creech was there and Bob Ross and I liked the team, and so I decided to take that job and I called John Evans and cancelled my interview so that’s how I got in the cable industry.
INTERVIEWER: At the time that your career in cable began, what did you find most striking about the industry?
BEALES: Well, coming from broadcasting, there were a lot of rules and the government was trying very hard to attract more women and minorities into the broadcasting industry, and in fact, they were mandating it, but cable was striking because the lack of rules meant there was more opportunity for women. So I found it really an interesting business and early on saw such tremendous potential for the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Can you speak a little more about that? A lot of women have said it was easier to enter in the industry during its formative years.
BEALES: Well, there was so much to be done in the industry in the early days that anybody who could do the job got the job, and that’s what was really exciting. I mean I didn’t have a background in public policy research although I had been a college debater so I knew a lot about public policy argument, but I didn’t have that specific background. So they said, well, that’s okay, you did other kinds of research so we’ll take you in this research position. When I got to the NCTA, there was no one else on the staff who knew much about programming and so they said, well, gee, you seem to know more about programming, why don’t you represent the programmers and take on this beast that we had called the ACE awards. And so for the next decade throughout the eighties, I worked with the programmers and had a chance to build the cable ACE awards, at that time they were still called ACE as opposed to Cable ACE, into something that we could use to really promote the industry which was so important as the program networks were just getting started, generate a lot of attention to cable and also give us some leverage against the broadcasters and their awards competition, and ultimately we were successful in getting into the Emmys and beating them at their own game on their own air. It was very exciting.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think are some of the elements of your success? What has enabled you to succeed within the industry?
BEALES: Well, I would say that I have the ability to see the big picture, and for what I do and association work and really trying to lead the industry, that’s very important but I think that’s important in any position is to really see how what you’re doing fits into that big picture and help promote an industry agenda. Of course, it was a lot of hard work and everybody who I think came up through the ranks in cable would say that that it’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s been incredibly awarding and I like to lead so it’s been a good match for the positions I’ve had.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say is your greatest personal achievement?
BEALES: I’m definitely most proud of turning around CTAM. When I came to CTAM in 1992, I was recruited by my good friend Matt Blank who was the current chairman of CTAM, and let’s just say he wasn’t completely forthcoming about the dire nature of the organization’s finances but because I had been on the board of CTAM as a volunteer throughout the eighties, I knew that everybody wanted CTAM to succeed, and it was just a matter of finding the right plan, the right set of services that would help the industry advance. And we had a lot of people who contributed their time and their good thinking to put us back on track and we’re very healthy today. So that really is I think the thing I’m most proud of.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk a little bit about how marketing strategies have changed within the cable industry?
BEALES: Well, marketing is in the midst of an evolution. You have to remember that CTAM was founded I guess 23 years ago now when HBO went on the satellite, and the people who had been selling cable as a retransmission service for clear pictures suddenly had to sell a product for the programming which we didn’t have at the time against a competitor, broadcast TV, that was free so they got together and said, gee, this is a pretty big marketing challenge. Quite frankly, cable marketing was not held in high esteem for quite a while as the industry developed mostly because cable marketing was really pretty narrowly defined as sales and promotions as opposed to other industries which much more broadly defined the role of marketing. We’re seeing that change occur really before our very eyes as there are very aggressive competitors in the marketplace, and everyone who works in the cable industry really has to be a marketer. Certainly if you’re on the cable operator side of the equation, you have to be a marketer, you have to put the customer first if you’re going to be successful. And so we’re seeing that change and it’s starting really bottom up but in a lot of the leadership roles, we’re starting to see marketers with much expanded titles. We see at Com-Cast, a marketer is the president of the cable company, we’re seeing change in a lot of the MSOs, and I think that change will continue.
INTERVIEWER: I think in a ’95 interview you said something about how the network needs to develop a brand name. Do you think it focuses still on brand names?
BEALES: Definitely that branding is an important element in successful marketing in any industry. It’s interesting because the cable industry really took a pioneering lead in branding, but it was on the programming side and it started with networks that did not have the broad reach of their broadcast competitors. So they had to build an image for themselves that stood out clear in a consumer’s mind and they had to pay off that. Branding is a whole lot more than a name, it has to be the image that a consumer thinks about when they hear your name and, of course, cable’s been a leader in that whether it’s Nickelodeon, Discovery, HBO of course, ESPN, AMC, the list goes on and on, cable has really excelled. On the cable operator side of the business have been slower to adopt branding strategies, but we’re now seeing that companies that are moving in that direction are finding success with it. Cox has been a leader and started branding in the late eighties, and married it with the improvements in customer service so that when a customer hears the Cox name, they know what that stands for and we’re seeing other companies follow that lead.
INTERVIEWER: How do you see marketing changing in the future with telecommunications, and could you predict where marketing in the cable industry, telecommunications will go in the next five or ten years?
BEALES: Well, predicting where marketing’s going to go in the next five to ten years is a tall challenge, but I can tell you that I think the cable operator side of the business is going to undergo a fundamental change and really become customer focused is what we have to do to really be successful in selling bundled products and having an image that can compete with companies that are really starting from scratch. If you look at what’s happened in the competition between Direct TV and the cable companies, it’s really interesting because Direct TV got to start from ground zero with a new plant with a chance to define themselves any way they wanted, they didn’t have a history of baggage in that closet that they had to overcome. And so I think everyone has seen that they’ve been a very successful competitor in the marketplace, cable marketers job is much more complicated going forward. We have to sell bundled products, we have to figure out how to reach new segments of the market, we have to have retail sales channels, something we’ve never had to deal with before and see that as a tremendous opportunity. We have digital cable as a product, we’re going to have the boxes that are going to be retailed, we have high speed Internet modems to sell, broad band content, we have to maintain our core business. So it’s going to be a very complicated structure, and then you overlay the telephony business on that, that really adds another layer of complication. We’re seeing the marketers move forward in those directions, and what I’m seeing is that the companies are bringing in people with more skills, specific skills, and the day of the generalist is gone, the day of the specialist. And so we’re attracting people with a lot of good experience, the trick in this industry is how to keep them because we’ve been a very small industry, we’ve been somewhat clubby. We’ve seen a lot of people with great skills come from outside our industry in, and be in a revolving door and be out the door before you knew it. So we have to find a way in the traditional cable companies to accept those new ideas, and to embrace them and to really teach those people about cable before they make those fatal mistakes and leave us. So it’s going to be a real challenge to integrate the new people, the new ideas, but we have to do that, and it all comes and it has to be built on putting the customer first, and that is a new way of thinking for a lot of our companies.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the customer is prepared for these technological changes?
BEALES: The customers are prepared for technological changes if it benefits them. If they get new services, it they get convenience, they want new products that benefit them. I mean just look in anybody’s kitchen or home office, consumers have readily accepted a lot of new technology, but it always is the technology that benefits them, and we have to get away from selling our industry and selling our services based on the features we provide and we have to put it in terms the customer sees the benefit and again, that’s a shift in the way we’ve been doing business but we can do it, we just have to change our mind set.
INTERVIEWER: I think you mentioned before that industry can be clubby. Did you find it to be sort of a male club or was it a club welcoming to women?
BEALES: Well, my experience is probably a little different because I was on the NCTA staff throughout the eighties, and so I got to be at the club. I wasn’t in the club, but I was at the clubhouse. And so I had the good fortune to meet the industry leaders who participated on the NCTA board and on the association side, they saw women as equal players and we’re welcoming in that regard. They weren’t perhaps quite as welcoming in their companies, and I think that’s been a bigger issue for women in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Are you satisfied with the progress that women have made in the industry? Do you think parity has been achieved?
BEALES: Definitely parity has not been achieved for women in this industry, however, many women have done exceedingly well and I guess the question is, how does our industry fair compared to other choices women had, and I think cable has been welcoming to women. I think our progress in this industry just like in a lot of other industries has come to fits and starts. In the late seventies, early eighties when a group of pioneering women in the industry founded WIC, for example, I think that they really forced some change in the industry, you know, that June Travis and Gail Sermersheim and Kay Koplovitz would stand up and say, women need to be recognized and we’re going to be a force and we’re going to have our own organization. That really took a lot of people by surprise, and I think there was some progress at that point. And more women came into the industry and we started to see a lot of women rise on the programming side, the Gerry Laybournes and Kate McEnroes and people who found success. Then there was a quieter period, then I think we’ve seen more success right before this era of consolidation, but what happens with the era of consolidation is the big question because you’re going to have fewer, bigger, more bureaucratic companies, and I think that the barriers to entry get higher on the cable side and that’s the open question, what happens next?
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that consolidation will help women with their careers or will it hinder them?
BEALES: I think consolidation will help some women because the industry is hungry for specialists who have great in depth skill sets that can be applied to our industry quickly, and people with those skills I think will do very well. I think it will make it harder in some of the very big companies for women to advance because it’s just more competition within these big companies. But the women who are clever and aggressive and move forward I think can do very well.
INTERVIEWER: Would you have any advice for young women entering the industry today, how should they approach their careers?
BEALES: I’m going to actually take a cheat, yes, I did think of that. My advice for women and really any young person entering the industry is to gather experience and bring clear skill sets to the industry, prove what you can do, and be aggressive and stand out. I know I work in an association so it’s a little self serving to say that you need to use the industry associations to get visibility. You have to stand out in a competitive crowd, and it always amazes me how many people fail to realize the advantage that CTAM or WIC can provide to them in not only acquiring leadership skills, but actually demonstrating them in running our various programs and standing out, raising their hand, being noticed, that is so important in these competitive times and I really urge young people to get involved in the industry associations because it can benefit them and they’ll feel good about doing it because they’re giving something.
INTERVIEWER: This might have some overlap what we’ve discussed before but I know in the early nineties, there’s a lot of talk about the glass ceiling and do you think there was a glass ceiling preventing women from achieving success or has that glass ceiling been broken?
BEALES: Well, I think there definitely was a glass ceiling and I think as it applies specifically to our industry, the business we were in in the eighties, at least on the operator side, was really about almost a financial business and fewer women gravitated toward the financial end of the business. It’s also technology driven, and fewer women have gone the engineering route and become technologists. I think we’re seeing our industry change, however, and as we become customer focused, we’ll become much more marketing driven. You know, if you look back in the history, the broadcast industry went through this exact same change. When it first started, it was really built by engineers, and then it became much more ad sales and programming driven. I think in the cable industry, we’ll see that transition as well and that will benefit women. Of course, we do have some notable exceptions of women who broke through the glass ceiling, and they took a lot of risks to get there and we’re all enormously proud of them. There’s been more progress made on the programmer side than the operator side but even on the operator side, you had Carolyn Chambers who was a very successful cable entrepreneur, June Travis, very successful, but they were notable exceptions. And I think that the day is coming as the industry is more marketing focused and customer focused that you’ll see more progress on the cable side as you’ve seen on the programming side with so many women who have excelled on the programming side.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think women in the cable industry have been adequately recognized for the contributions they’ve made in building it?
BEALES: I think in cable, the women who have really excelled and really contributed have received a lot of recognition. I think the Women in Cable program has been terrific over the years. They’ve done a great job of recognizing a lot of different women, the NCTA program with their Vanguard awards have recognized a lot of women. I think that there are women who have given a lot in this industry and there are many women who still have a lot to give, and I don’t favor recognizing people who haven’t yet made that contribution. I think that there needs to be some parity in terms of the people you recognize for what they’ve given, and I encourage women to really get out there and contribute. There are so many avenues for contributing in this industry, WIC has their chapters, CTAM has chapters, SCTE has chapters. You don’t have to travel to make contributions and with this era of committee work being done by phone, fax and e-mail, there’s a lot of chance to participate and carve out a little bit of your time to give back. So I think that there will be more women recognized in the future as they give more.
INTERVIEWER: You obviously know that industry is demanding, and a lot of times they’ll say they’re concerned about balancing personal life and professional life. Would you have any advice on how to achieve balance, is it possible?
BEALES: Well, for me, achieving balance was really having kids, they sort of imposed balance. I worked very hard early in my career and delayed having children for a period of time until I really was established in my career. Once I had children, I realized that I didn’t need to spend nearly as much time in the office and I didn’t need to have to do every single task on my desk at 100%, and I learned that I could be much more efficient and give a lot of time to my family. Do I still give, am I still out of balance? Of course. That’s sort of a demanding thing about this industry, but it’s more because this industry is so much fun to work in that you want to do the work, and you have to really force the balance because it’s easy to give a lot. But that said, having children really changes your priorities and when they get to be, at least my kids are in the middle school years, they have so many activities that you just have to go and be there for them and it really brings some of that balance.
So for a person like me, I don’t know that I would have had the discipline to bring the balance so having a family brought it. I think the next generation has the discipline to provide the balance, and then it’s learning about how to be good at time management, make your priorities and stick to them, and I always hope that one of those priorities does include giving something back to the industry.
INTERVIEWER: As I recently learned, you were secretary of WIC in 1981 or ’82?
BEALES: ’81 or ’82, I’m not sure which year. It was the year Kay Koplovitz was president.
INTERVIEWER: Can we talk about some of your experiences from that year?
BEALES: Well, of course at that time, WIC was a very tiny organization, and I was so fortunate to be able to hang out with Gail Sermersheim and June Travis and Catherine Creech.
I was very fortunate to be elected the national secretary of WIC back in, it was either in 1981 or ’82, I’m not completely sure. Kay Koplovitz was president and at that stage in my career, it was such a thrill to get to hang out with women like Gail Sermersheim and June Travis, Kay, Catherine Creech, Linda Brodsky, it was a great crew of people. WIC of course at that time was a really tiny organization, Lucille Larkin was involved in administering the programs, but we didn’t have very many programs to administer. So at that point, we were really figuring out how to build an organization, how to start chapters and establish a strong presence in local regions because many people didn’t travel and we didn’t have so many industry meetings for them to go to, and how to get credibility as an organization because as a new organization, you know, the industry leaders looked at it as sort of why do we need another organization, what are you going to do to justify your existence. So our meetings were really about how do we establish this as something that’s unique and valued in the industry and really provides a benefit to our members, and how do we stay alive financially because, of course, we were just getting started. So it was an exciting time to be involved, but the benefit to me was building a closer relationship with some of these pioneering women who started WIC and have remained great friends.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as WIC’s greatest achievement?
BEALES: I think drawing so many women into the organization, allowing them to get together and allowing them to learn about leadership. I think WIC has really excelled at building programs that build women’s leadership skills. That’s so important for them to get ahead and whether it’s the Betsy Magnus program which is just extraordinary or having women lead their local chapters, it gives skills and demonstrated skills and I think that’s really what makes WIC such a great organization.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember how you initially joined WIC? Did someone recruit you or did you just hear about it?
BEALES: Well, NCTA, I learned about WIC through my colleagues at NCTA, Catherine Creech was active on the founding of WIC and at the time, NCTA, Tom Wheeler, really wanted us on the staff to be out there and represent the organization and be a participant. And so it was really encouraged that we get involved, but it was really learning about it from Catherine.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see WIC perhaps evolving as we move into the next century?
BEALES: WIC must evolve or it won’t be here. We’re all in the business of evolving. It doesn’t matter what part of the industry you’re in, we have to figure out how to change to provide more service to whoever our constituency is. And that’s true if you’re a cable operator, you’re in a consolidated industry, you have to change to serve your customer, if you’re a programmer, you have to change to serve not only the cable operators but also the viewers who are now getting a lot of other options available for their time, and if you’re an association, you have to change because this world has changed and the needs are different and we’re all needs based groups so we have to figure out where the need is and we have to go serve it. But the good news is there are plenty of needs out there, and so there is always going to be a need for an organization like WIC and I hope CTAM moving forward.
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure you came here anticipating some questions, do you have a question I haven’t asked?
BEALES: I guess the most important message that I’d like to convey today is to all of the people who are in the industry and those who are going to be coming into the industry, it’s so important to find a role that you really love, it’s so important to find a job and a company that you get up every morning and say, I can’t wait to get there because that’s what makes it fun. And I think for so many of us who’ve been involved in cable over the last twenty years, that’s the way it’s been, you know? You just couldn’t wait to get there and make it impact, and really grow this business and it was so exciting in the eighties and in the nineties and I think in the next decade, it’s even going to be more exciting. So I urge young people to come in this industry and find that niche, something you love to do because if you love to do it, you’ll make an impact and you’ll be successful, and you will grow and find the next place to make an impact and this is a wonderful business to be in and it’s going to just get better.
INTERVIEWER: Alright. Well, thank you very much.