J. Francis Bradley

J. Francis Bradley

Interviewer: Kristin Van Ormer
Interview Date: August 6, 2005
Collection: Broadband Communications Assoc. of Pennsylvania Series


J. Francis Bradley describes his start in cable, early challenges with equipment and channel capacity, and the contributions and success of small operators in Pennsylvania. He addresses challenges with programming and acquisition of systems, as well as commenting on deregulation and franchise renewals. He explores competition with Dish Network and Verizon, government regulation, and milestones such as pay TV and the introduction of cable modems. Bradley details the importance of both expansion and local support for customers. He concludes by discussing his chairmanship of BCAP, mentions the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN), and reflects on the value of transmitting cable’s history through the years.

Interview Transcript

KRISTIN VAN ORMER: Fran, welcome. We’re here talking to Fran Bradley today about the cable industry in Pennsylvania. Fran, why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you first entered the cable industry and what it looked like at that time?

FRAN BRADLEY: Well, it was a long time ago. I actually started in 1970 as a summer job and it’s been the longest summer job that I know of. I started as a technician and was able to work my way up into a head technical position and then moved up into general manager and have been in management ever since 1980. There have been a lot of changes since 1970.

VAN ORMER: Who were you working for when you got involved in the industry?

BRADLEY: I started out working for Steel Valley Cable down in the Monongahela Valley area of Pennsylvania, which then became part of Center Video which then became part of TCI. I worked for them for about a year and a half and then started with Adelphia in 1972.

VAN ORMER: What were some of the biggest technical challenges you were facing at that time?

BRADLEY: Oh, probably some of the biggest ones was the reliability of the equipment. They were just starting to move into transistorized equipment, the stability with weather changes, those types of things, and of course here in Pennsylvania we certainly get our share of weather. Those were probably the major issues, and then of course as things started to develop, then expanding the channel capacity because when I started we probably only had about six or seven channels on the cable system at that time.

VAN ORMER: Were you using mainly Jerrold equipment.


VAN ORMER: From your perspective, what is the single greatest contribution that Pennsylvania cable has made to the overall industry?

BRADLEY: Well, I think as far as we’re concerned here in Pennsylvania, it’s where cable started, despite other thoughts. But I think it’s all of the pioneers, the people who really started this business, the “ma and pa” operations, from the television appliance sales people that originally started to enhance cable and really promote cable. I think that’s probably the largest contribution because there are so many of them that are still around and so many that are still very active.

VAN ORMER: It is prevalent in the Pennsylvania cable culture, I think, that there are so many small operators and the “ma and pa” operators that are still around. How specifically do you think that’s colored how the cable industry is today in Pennsylvania?

BRADLEY: Well, I think it all came from the work ethic. You know, with many of the cable companies being private companies, it was the husband, the wife, the sons, the daughters that all helped run the business and it was their life. I think a lot of the employees that they brought on took on that same value, that it was theirs and whatever it took to make it operate, whatever it took to make it succeed that they did. I think that type of work ethic – at least from the western part of the state that I’m very familiar with – I think is still very predominant.

VAN ORMER: There are still so many of those companies in existence that have not been merged with larger corporations. Do you have an opinion about why that is, about why so many people have remained independent operators in Pennsylvania?

BRADLEY: I think it still comes down to the pride that this is theirs, this is something they built. It’s something that they nurtured from a very small business to a very important business. They’ve done a great job keeping up with technologies. The technologies are extremely expensive and the programming is extremely expensive, but they’ve managed to be able to go ahead and continue to survive and in most cases those people are very involved in their communities. They’re very much a part of the community. They’re the corporate sponsor, they’re the corporate partners with so many of the activities that take place in those communities – it’s unbelievable.

VAN ORMER: Okay. I want to get a little bit more in depth about some of those challenges of the expensive programming now to small operators, but we’ll go into that later. I want to go back to 1972 when you joined Adelphia. You joined as a technical person?

BRADLEY: I joined as a technician. I hooked up our 26th customer in the Bethel Park area, which is a suburb of Pittsburg and we built the cable system in Bethel Park and then expanded into some of the other communities surrounding that.

VAN ORMER: What were some of the milestones of your career through that progression? I assume you rose through the ranks and got involved in other aspects of the business?

BRADLEY: I became the chief technician of our Bethel Park system around 1978 and then was named general manager of the system in 1980, and then the systems just continued to grow. We acquired some systems from some other operators, which expanded our presence in the Pittsburg area and those fell under my responsibilities, but of course then we started to get into the expansion of the programming and the introduction of the microwave with some of the distant signals that we were able to bring in – Channel 43 out of Cleveland and WOR out of New York, and of course HBO, and then the explosion of the satellite and just all of the channels that came about from there. All of the channels that the broadcasters looked at and said, “You’re crazy, these are never going to work. Who’s going to watch a 24-hour news channel; who’s going to watch a 24-hour kid’s channel?” And of course Desert Storm came along and cable was the only player left to do any of the coverage of that.

VAN ORMER: So you were kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. A lot of the people I’m going to talk to this weekend are small operators that have had to work in the context of an industry where there are increasingly large competitors. You are with a cable company that is fairly large and you’ve probably bought up along the way some of the smaller systems. What have been the challenges in doing that over the years? What kinds of challenges did you face in acquiring smaller systems that might have needed a lot of upgrading?

BRADLEY: Well, there certainly were some technical aspects to some of the systems that we acquired but a lot of it was just integrating the employee base, the customer base, making sure that the culture that we had at Adelphia and still have at Adelphia was able to be conveyed to not only our new customers but to our new employees, making sure that all of the technical aspects met up to the specifications that we wanted them to be so that we were able to continue to provide additional services, enhance services.

VAN ORMER: I guess, moving forward, you got increasingly involved in franchising and with public policy?


VAN ORMER: Can you talk a little bit about maybe some of your most memorable franchising experiences? We all know that there were some interesting…

BRADLEY: I think it goes back to pre-deregulation, pre-1984 Cable Act and then of course post-’84 Cable Act. A lot of people in this industry have gone through this where you went to the council meetings and you had to get their approval for a rate increase. If you came out of there with a nickel you were lucky, but fortunately the government saw fit to deregulate the cable industry in ’84 and as a result of that, the cable industry just exploded because we were able to finally start to reinvest into the system, to rebuild the systems, to bring in the new technologies. Now, I think probably one of the major challenges that we run in to in a lot of the franchising renewal process is just conveying to the communities, especially in western Pennsylvania because there are so many small communities and they take great pride in the fact that they’re their own entity and want to remain that way, just conveying to them that the federal government has kind of laid the groundwork as far as how a renewal process should go, but what we’ve tried to do in all of the communities that I deal with is make sure that they realize and appreciate the fact that we’re doing it as a partnership, that we’re providing a service that is a very valuable service to their residents and that the best way to have that type of relationship is for it to be a good relationship and a good partnership.

VAN ORMER: When the ’92 Act came along, how did that impact you here specifically with Adelphia and in Pennsylvania?

BRADLEY: We didn’t have that many issues. We had a few communities that went ahead and certified to regulate our rates, but Adelphia had, back in either the late ’80s or early ’90s, had rolled out a lifeline basic. I think we were one of the first ones in the industry to do that, and of course the re-regulation basically was only on the lowest level of service which we already had in place. Most of the communities though remained unregulated. We have some, but certainly I don’t think to the volume that they may have in some of the other areas.

VAN ORMER: So, getting in to programming – and that’s become, I think, an increasingly contentious topic between MSOs and the programmers – what is your perspective on the climate today, especially with – I don’t know if you can speak from a smaller operator standpoint necessarily, but how the costs are increasing from the programming side and how do you see that resolving itself, or do you think it will be resolved?

BRADLEY: I’m not sure that it will ever be resolved. Certainly from the programmer’s standpoint I can understand that it’s expensive to either produce your own programming or to acquire your own programming. From an operator’s standpoint, though, that’s what drives our rates, which the bottom line is that’s what the customers perceive is that we’re raising the rates. With the competition and the dish networks being permitted to carry all of the same programming that we carry, even though we created it, we developed it, we fostered it, and basically we’re forced to give it to our competitors, I think that somewhere along the line the pricing of the programming has got to level out somehow. I’m not sure exactly how that’ll happen or if it every will happen, but we’re starting to get to a point, I believe, with the cost where it’s about where a customer can bear but I’m not sure how much further that can really be pushed.

VAN ORMER: With the emergence of more competitors in the industry with the Dish Network and with now perhaps some of the phone companies getting back in the game, how do you think the cable industry will need to differentiate itself to remain competitive?

BRADLEY: Well, I think the one thing that we have done very successfully in showing that we’re different from the dish is our localism, the fact that we are involved in our communities. A lot of the community involvement projects that each of the cable operators take on, different sponsorships, I don’t think that you see that with the dish networks or Direct TVs, and I’m not so sure that Verizon will be able to do that. Right now they’re targeting very specific high-end communities, and the community involvement probably isn’t as important in those higher-end communities as it is in the more middle of the road type of communities where they’re struggling. In western PA, employment is down because of a lot of the closings of the mills and many of those communities are looking for all the help they can get, and of course one of the sources that they receive it from is from franchise fees, and even though we pass that through to the customer, it still generates revenue for that community and it’s revenue that they don’t get from the dish.

VAN ORMER: What other challenges do you feel are in today’s climate to cable operators with new technologies coming out? Maybe especially from what’s happening right now in public policy.

BRADLEY: Well, certainly the Internet, cable modems is an issue. Right now it’s a telecommunications information service. As we start to move in to voice, I think that that’s going to be a technology that is going to raise some issues as far as public policy is concerned, as far as whether it should be regulated or not regulated, and if so at what type of level. One of the things that we’ve tried to encourage Congress was that if you look back at when cell phones were originally introduced, they were introduced without any type of regulation on them and the reason that cell phones have been able to explode is because of that, and so while that was a new technology and they allowed it to grow and to foster, we feel that they should be doing the exact same thing with our voice product. It certainly will provide all of the same features that the traditional telephone has been able to do. Certainly the one difference is that we’re doing this with our money where the telephone was certainly developed with consumer money.

VAN ORMER: Right! And I guess speaking to that, the industry has been developed with its own money and there has been a lot of advantages given to broadcasters and to the phone company. Do you see that that will change anytime in terms of legislation or public policy? Do you think that the cable industry, now that it’s a little more mature will get more of a helping hand in terms of that?

BRADLEY: I’m not sure that the cable industry is looking for that because I think that that’s a double-edged sword. Whenever you start to get help from the federal government there’s always a downside to that. I think that the cable industry is basically looking at keeping the regulation away, making sure that we go ahead and are able to continue to develop and improve and expand the services that we have and provide the service to our customers, but I don’t believe that we’re looking for that free ride from the government.

VAN ORMER: Of all the innovations that the cable industry has incubated and launched over the years, do you think that there’s been maybe one single one that’s had the biggest impact from your perspective? Was it maybe the launching of HBO, or…?

BRADLEY: I think certainly that would probably have to be at the forefront.

VAN ORMER: Just within your experience at Adelphia, what did you see come along down the pike that really was a seminal pivot point?

BRADLEY: I would think the introduction of pay-TV, of HBO and Showtime and the satellite channels, and then I think the next one would certainly be the high-speed cable modems, I think would be the two that would be the main pivotal points, I think, in our industry that I’ve seen.

VAN ORMER: Can you talk a little bit more about how they specifically affected your business?

BRADLEY: Well, certainly it expanded the channel capacity. We were able to go from six channels to now a could hundred channels, and that type of development, as I said, when we started with a 24-hour news channel, 24-hour kids channel, that narrowcasting of programming really started to develop. You get into the Discoverys and the Arts & Entertainments and American Movie Classics and Home and Garden and you can go on and on, were all programs that were able to be developed because we supplied the viewership. It wasn’t so much that there was an outcry from people saying, “We want a channel that is strictly home and gardens.” It was something that we were able to provide and provide the viewership for and of course then the following just went with that. So I think that’s probably the biggest explosion. The second one would be us moving in to the Internet business and being able to provide high-speed broadband Internet service to some extremely rural areas. A lot of areas where in some cases they may not have touchtone phones, we’ve provided high-speed Internet service, and certainly at a much faster pace than the telephone industry has been able to do.

VAN ORMER: Being that you operate in an environment where you are in touch with the smaller communities, how do you think that affects your customer relations?

BRADLEY: Oh, I think it certainly enhances it. We handle about 600 communities in the western Pennsylvania area and we have an excellent reputation with them, and again, I think it’s just because they know that we’re trying to be fair with them. If they have an issue, we respond to it. If they have a need that we can fulfill, we’ll fulfill it. But if it’s something that we can’t, they will accept the fact that if we tell them that we can’t, that we really can’t. It’s a good trust relationship is the way I categorize it.

VAN ORMER: Looking down the road five, ten years, do you have a vision of what the cable industry is going to look like as it evolves to meet the challenges of these technologies that are emerging, new competitors?

BRADLEY: I’m not so sure that I have a vision of how it will look. I can give you how I would like to see it. I would like to see it maintain its roots, to maintain a lot of the abilities that it had that gave us the opportunity to grow – the localism, the caring, the customers, making sure that we took care of the customers and that the customers were number one. I think that we’ve done a pretty good job over the 35 years that I’ve been in the industry of continuing to expand, continuing to get bigger, but still keeping that local presence and local image. I think that’s going to be important to the industry as we move forward. The technologies, I’m sure, are going to just continue to skyrocket the same as they have over the last 10-15 years, especially with the deployment of all of the fiber optics and all of the advantages that we’re able to utilize those for, but to sit here and say what I think it’s really going to look like in ten years, I’m hoping it looks similar.

VAN ORMER: Can you talk a little bit about your position as chairman of BCAP –and I know it’s one of the most active state associations – and what some of your missions are within the association for the state, and I don’t know if you can talk at all about PCN, which I think is an amazing network, and the inter-relationship between the cable operators here in Pennsylvania and PCN? I guess it’s a two-fold question.

BRADLEY: As far as PCN is concerned, it is, again, another great service and another great service that the cable industry has built. It’s probably one of the few channels that were developed by cable operators that we’re still able to maintain as cable exclusive, and I hope that that continues because I think it’s an extremely valuable service. They’ve done a great job expanding their programming from their coverage of what goes on in Harrisburg to all of their community involvement. As far as the relationship with BCAP and PCN, I think, again, it’s something that is a partnership, the same as what we do with our communities. As far as being chairman of BCAP, it certainly is an honor. For many years I watched our state association and watched a lot of the founders who started this industry run this association, and to think that at some point I’m going to be in that same category as far as being one of the ex-chairman of the association is a very great honor, and hopefully I can fill their shoes. But as far as our mission is concerned, I think our mission is to just continue to talk about our industry. For so many years we were content with just kind of sticking our head in the ground and if no one was shooting the bullets too close to our heads we were okay, but I think what we really need to do is to step out, to get ourselves in front of the powers that be, and whether that’s on a state level, whether it’s on a national level, or if it’s on a local level, making sure that we tell our story, making sure that they know what we’re doing and not what they’re necessarily reading because there’s a lot of people out there that have and will continue to try to position themselves to take the potshots at us wherever they can, and so I think we need to be out front and telling our story and telling it to our customers.

VAN ORMER: I know in talking to you that you appreciate and recognize the importance of honoring the founders of the industry and the heritage of the industry. Do you feel that with the younger generation – maybe not so much in Pennsylvania, but maybe – that they’ve lost some of that camaraderie, some of that collegiality of the shared experience and product?

BRADLEY: I think so, and that’s one of the things that we’ve talked about as a board, is how do we get more involvement in great weekends like this weekend where we’re honoring the founder, the Heritage Weekend. I think that there is still, though, a good bit of that pride that takes place and I think that, again, we need to be telling our story to our employees. I think they need to know where this industry came from; I think they need to know what we stand for, what we’re looking for, and why we take the pride in what we do. And so I think we’ve been able to develop that in many cases. As companies start to get a lot larger I think that it’s more important that that type of value be instilled and tried to be carried forward because I think that’s what’s really going to sustain this industry through the next twenty years.

VAN ORMER: I think it’s been very unique. There’s just such an atmosphere of family with the cable community and I think that a lot of people feel it’s being lost. And so do you feel that’s the way to kind of cultivate it is telling the story?

BRADLEY: I think so. I think making sure that the story is told, promoting these types of events, trying to get more involvement from not only the top management of a lot of the operators, but starting to get down more into the grassroots of their organizations, to bring those types of people along, to let them see a lot of the things that I was privileged enough to be able to see as I was growing up through this industry and giving me something to shoot for, looking at individuals who were in those types of leadership positions and maybe just fantasizing that maybe someday I could be there.

VAN ORMER: I know that you are going to be involved in the industry for years to come, but at this point do you have a professional legacy that you feel you’ve left on the industry, or most rewarding career moment?

BRADLEY: I think probably the most rewarding career moment would be the reaction that I’ve gotten from many of the employees when I’ve moved from position to position, the reaction I got when I left – and it wasn’t that they all stood up and applauded! But more of wishing me luck but wishing I wasn’t leaving. I think that’s probably one of the most rewarding.

VAN ORMER: Great. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?

BRADLEY: No, I just would like to thank you guys for being here and giving me this opportunity.

VAN ORMER: Great! Well, we appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

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