Interview Date: December 3, 2014
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein, I’m here for the Cable Center’s Oral History Project. We’re here with Craig Cuttner, who is the SVP of Technology Development and Standards at HBO.
Welcome, Craig. Great to have you here.
Cuttner: Good to be here.
Arenstein: One of the things that people in the business, but I would say a lot of the public doesn’t realize, is that HBO is a technology leader that placed its bets pretty early in a lot of cases, and it’s a better business today because of some of the bets that you and Bob Zitter made years ago.
Cuttner: Sometimes, but not always. We were a fast follower when that was necessary. After all we’re a storytelling company and not a technology company. Not many companies who believe they were technology companies first and storytellers second are around to tell the story. So we did innovate several incredible things, notably the migration from terrestrial microwave. But HBO’s history was long before satellite, but that was the inflection point of the first real great thing that was a technical innovation.
Arenstein: Let’s talk about HBO’s history before the satellite. You were there, correct, or you were just coming into the business?
Cuttner: We were already in satellite, but I do fashion myself a sponge for knowledge. I love hearing the old stories from the folks who were there before me. In fact, there were some stories about terrestrial microwave when it was mountaintop to mountaintop through New York and Pennsylvania, that were some incredible stories. Part of it was also that HBO didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was a trailblazer in the programming sense as well as the technology sense and some of those old stories were fascinating to me. Then the move to satellite and the move to national distribution was certainly an inflection point for the industry and for HBO.
Arenstein: Let’s go back even there and talk about how did cable start. Why was there cable in the first place?
Cuttner: That history is far before me but generally it was I think, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, November 8, 1972 (my birthday is November 9th so I always remember the 8th), and that was basically a mechanism to sell television sets and it was antennas on mountaintops. And HBO came in as the first, what we would call in technology, a baseband signal. It wasn’t an antenna, it wasn’t on a mountaintop, it was delivered by microwave from New York City point to point to point, and that was brought into the headend and put on the channel. So that was that original launch. That’s sort of how cable started in the early days, like Frigidaire was synonymous with refrigerators, HBO was the name ascribed to cable.
Arenstein: People got cable in the early days to get a better picture.
Arenstein: I mean, programming was sort of—it was there but not much of it.
Cuttner: Certainly. Again, I’ll just tell you a funny anecdote because one of HBO’s first things in programming was they didn’t know what to do. The first night of programming was a polka festival and a hockey game and a movie, and one of the funny stories was that they started—it had never been done on television before. They started covering swim meets. And they had young high-strung directors from New York come out and, “OK, we’re going to do this swim meet.” And no one had ever done it before so they didn’t know where to put the cameras, they didn’t know where to do anything and the story was told that the director didn’t like the flags over the pool because it blocked the shot of the swimmers as they were swimming. So they took the flags away, started the swim meet, started recording and then the first backstroke occurred and the swimmers swam right into the wall because the flags are used to flag the turn. So there are several stories like that in the HBO history books that are somewhat comical.
Arenstein: Let’s talk about your beginning, Craig. Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Cuttner: I went to Georgia Tech in Atlanta; Atlanta for me was second grade for me through college and it was sort of an amalgam degree. I ended up working my way through school at a television station, which is where I got my start in the industry, pulling camera cables and that sort of stuff. I graduated from Tech and the crusty old chief engineer of the TV station said, “Kid, I’d love to have you work here but you need to go find your fame and fortune.” So literally he told me to send my resume to the network, which was CBS, and I sent my resume to CBS and received a Western Union telegram so I’m dating myself. A plane ticket and I went to New York and had five interviews in X hours, flew back to Atlanta where I was still living with my parents and they said, “How was New York?” And I said, “Well, I’m not quite sure but I’m moving there.” I accepted the job and did some New York, Los Angeles kind of network television stuff and then one of my colleagues from CBS called me up and he said, “ Hey, this cable—“ I didn’t know what cable was; I didn’t even have it at home at time. He said, “This is fun.” And fun definitely got my attention. Two weeks later I left CBS and I was at HBO and that was thirty-two years ago.
Arenstein: So what did you find when you went from CBS, which was—
Cuttner: The Tiffany Network…
Arenstein: The Tiffany. To this thing called “cable,” which had to have been a bit of a gamble for you.
Cuttner: It absolutely was. But I was young and single and that was in its day, the entrepreneurial thing. The history of cable is all about entrepreneurial spirit. I had it at a micro-level. Well, I’ll try this out; it could be fun. And it was fun. I look back over a long career and realize that virtually every six months I’ve done something different. Whether it was a different project or a different facet of business development or trying something out or experimenting—it’s been crazy.
Arenstein: So what was HBO like back then when you walked in the door, which was what year? It was 1982?
Cuttner: Yes. Well, the first day almost completely deflated my entrepreneurial spirit because the person that hired me was fired. I walked in the door and they said, “We’ve got good news and bad news. You still work here but oh, by the way, the guy that interviewed you and hired you is not here anymore.” I said, “OK.”
Arenstein: That wasn’t your friend, was it?
Cuttner: No, it wasn’t.
Arenstein: OK, that’s good.
Cuttner: That was OK because I don’t know if it was a non-compete or whatever but he then became my boss and that was great.
Arenstein: Your friend became your boss.
Arenstein: Hey, that’s great.
Cuttner: Well, it wasn’t like we were chummy and friendly. We had a professional relationship of him giving me hard projects and that kind of stuff. So then it just was a migration of the tail end of HBO being on the satellite and getting the cable industry to understand what it was. Because as I had said, cable was used to signals coming from antennas on top of mountains. Satellite dishes, that was all new technology in the early days, the operators would actually get the satellite dishes, which were hugely expensive. HBO would lease them because they didn’t have the capital to build it themselves, then there were other things on the satellite and then it became more of a cost-benefit for them to build their own. But that was the early days. We used to literally go on the road. We had a team of engineers that went out, went to regional shows, went to local headends and literally taught the cable operators what a satellite was, how to use it, how to do the link calculations and point a dish and all that sort of stuff, and it was really a learning experience.
Arenstein: What was HBO—let’s get back a little bit—what was HBO like when you walked in the door? How many people were there for example?
Cuttner: Even the company today is barely over 1,000 people. So it was always a small gang and from an isolation perspective, the main thrust of the building was in the Time-Life building and I was one of first employees that wasn’t there. So we had our little engineering group separate from the programming people and the marketing people who were all in their own little world of Time, Inc., which—back to your “What was it like?” Time, Inc., was known at that point as the “country club.” It was—as seen on “Mad Men”—it was martini lunches, it was a very different culture and HBO was moving away from that, and getting its own building down on 42nd Street was actually telling because it really did allow the entrepreneurial spirit to sort of move away from stodgy old Time, Inc.
Arenstein: OK. Let’s talk about—so you’re at HBO in the early days for you and for your
career. At what point did you say, “Oh, yes, this cable thing it’s not a gamble anymore. This is something that’s going to work. I’m going to be able to make a long career here. I’m going to raise a family on what I’m going to make here.” When was that?
Cuttner: One of my first big projects was satellite scrambling because back in the day, no one ever expected a consumer to have a dish and then with cost efficiencies and better chips and smaller lower noise amplifiers, consumers actually had the satellite dishes. So we were forced to scramble our signal. And that was my first project and it was getting out again to the hinterlands and showing cable operators how to install the equipment, what it meant to them, and that was right about the time when the industry hit the stability of—you know, they were past the franchise wars, they were past the capital infusions, they really had running businesses that were profitable. That’s when I said, wow, this is a pretty good business.
Arenstein: What year was that about?
Cuttner: That would have been probably 1986-87. That was the first of many big projects that just were tipping points for the cable industry. Scrambling—I’m sure you said Bob Zitter—that was when actually scrambling allowed the cable industry to really think about the DBS business because it was collecting money from subscribers directly for access to the programming. And HBO was a participant in that. So if you think of things happening in 2015 and beyond, HBO actually had a storefront, collected money, and a call center. So we actually were—I wouldn’t call it over the top—but it was a retail business that subsequently was overtaken by events such as DirecTV and DISH and big dishes just fell out of favor.
Arenstein: We’re a little out of order, but let’s talk about what did HBO announce a few weeks ago that sounds eerily similar to what you’re talking about? Tell us the implications of that announcement.
Cuttner: I’m actually not sure because that’s still playing out in the way the announcement was made and how our chairman, Richard Plepler, mentioned it as an evolution of our existing business relationships. I don’t know that it’s going to be a watershed. Everyone thinks it is. The press certainly is enjoying making it into something as they have fostered this competition between HBO and Netflix on a global scale, which is really not true. There are subscriber ways to look at that, there are economic ways to look at that but it’s just not a valid comparison to say that we’re head-to-head in some markets. We’re not.
Arenstein: Somebody actually sat in this chair a few hours ago and said, “If I had a choice of managing HBO or Netflix, I would certainly choose HBO.” In terms of money and reach and everything else.
Cuttner: Does that mean I’m going to find money in the seat cushion?
Arenstein: No, that’s not how we work here. Let’s talk about the HBO Go program. Or the HBO Go product.
Cuttner: Generically, TV everywhere.
Arenstein: TV everywhere, right, but HBO Go’s product—I’m not saying that’s because you’re sitting here—everybody I’ve spoken with, everything I’ve read, everybody raves about it. What part did you play in that?
Cuttner: In some ways, it’s an evolution of a lot of different technologies. Way back from when Time Warner Cable and HBO were sister companies and we worked together on the Full Service Network, which became video-on-demand and the cost reduction and the scale of the Internet made that become a viable product for a larger scale deployment. So you could argue that HBO Go is a video-on-demand product from the history of digital cable and video-on-demand.
I worked on pieces of it. My expertise—I’m the chair of several committees and some of them are in the cable industry on encoding. So part of the contributions was how we do the video encoding and the rights management because it’s all about getting paid. That history of being a satellite scrambling guy and taking that over to digital rights management has sort of been an evolution of my career as well. So a lot of the contributions of the security piece.
But we also worked—and this was across HBO and Turner and Time Warner in general—TV Everywhere was an initiative across Time Warner. So the authentication and how all that works was also something that was a contribution before HBO Go really launched. So I’ve worked on lots of pieces of it.
Arenstein: I guess I’d be remiss if I interviewed somebody from HBO and didn’t at least use the words, “The Sopranos.” Talk about anything that touched your corner of the world with that franchise.
Cuttner: To do a humor story first.
Cuttner: The finale, where there was a music bed playing and fade to black. Apparently Mr. Chase, the creative genius behind it, wanted that fade to black to be three minutes long. And better heads prevailed and it was a discussion about “Do you know how many phone calls the cable industry will get when they think their cable is dead at a crucial story right in the most popular show of the day?” And it was shortened significantly. That was one of the little tidbits…
Arenstein: Aha, aha.
Cuttner: But “The Sopranos” was an inflection point across a couple of HBO things such as the fact that HBO had been, I wouldn’t say this too glibly, HBO had been given up for dead several times. Whether it was the VCR—why would anyone want to pay to see a movie they’ve already seen or even cable in general? Why would anyone want to pay for a channel when television is free? And there have been several evolutions of that and one of them was our contributions to original programming, which was to see something on HBO you can’t see anywhere else.
Arenstein: OK, so now flip from those arguments back in the 80s—nobody is going to want to pay money for cable when they can get it for free, or when they can get television for free. And here we are in 2014, almost 2015; a lot of people a lot younger than you and I am say the same thing. Why should I pay for cable? I can get it—legally or illegally—for free. Where are we going with this?
Cuttner: I characterize them generally as Millennials. And you look at the monetization efforts that occur and you look at how many YouTube subscription of people who watch cat videos and it gets 50 million hits, which is more than typically a TV network gets in terms of ratings. What does that mean? What does that mean to the industry? Is that really a turning point? Or is it just a fad or is it some watershed that everyone needs to take into account? The HBO model of programming has always differed over time to—it’s not network television trying to please everyone all the time. It’s what does it take to make you happy enough one time during the month to get your checkbook out? Not trying to be everything to everybody. That’s a whole programming model that I’m not certainly qualified to talk about but it is something that HBO has evolved over time. That’s as we said in 2014-2015. That’s probably the biggest thing that’s coming down the pike that everyone’s going to have to figure out.
Arenstein: And then to make matters even more interesting for HBO, you have a network called Cinemax that is known for a number of things but high drama isn’t one of them until you come up with a great drama called “The Knick.”
Cuttner: Cinemax has always been—I don’t even know the term, is it “stalking brand” or some mechanism to counter program. We’ve done that with Multiplex, where there was one HBO channel and now there’s between HBO and Cinemax, we have twenty-six different feeds. Those are all counter programs; they have different demographics and Cinemax fills that role. The fact that Cinemax had some early shows: they had SCTV, they had “Max Headroom,” they had a lot of avant-garde stuff that fit into the demographics that network’s targeted to. So there’s been a lot of things that HBO, in general, morphs into to fill different niches.
Arenstein: With the growth of HBO—and you’ve been there through most of that growth—how has that changed your job, changed your life?
Cuttner: Back to the every six month mantra. It’s been an evolution of being an innovator, taking risks and then also realizing it’s a big multi-billion dollar industry. Multi-billion dollar company in a multi-hundred billion dollar industry. That requires attention to detail so you start paying more attention to, well, what if it doesn’t work right? What about a backup? What about a backup to a backup? What happens when it doesn’t work? That sort of mentality has rippled in over time. Not being more conservative, just being more prudent in what the technology deployments are, what the risks are associated with them and how to take a project successfully against a press release launch date.
Arenstein: Talk to me about some of your proudest moments, specifically about certain technologies or certain projects. Some of your proudest moments at HBO over the years.
Cuttner: Proud in general is probably for me being behind the scenes. I’m not the bright bee in front of everybody so successful execution is proud. I think some of the proudest moments would be things that evolved into mainstream cable. Working with some of the early Time Warner folks on the Full Service Network where literally it was the figuring stuff out kind of perspective and that effectively—which was ridiculed at some point during its early deployments—now is the standard by which all digital cable is deployed even to this day. There were only two parts of that project that were changed. One was the change from ATM protocol to Internet Protocol. OK, that was down in the engine room and the other piece was the guide was such a big part of that user experience that, initially, it was a session — so it consumed network bandwidth so people were just surfing and deciding what they wanted to watch. So the digital cable today now has that as a carousel where it’s sent separately and doesn’t consume bandwidth while people are trying to figure out what they want to watch. That was a proud moment, I think.
We as a network in the 80s, we saw high definition and some of our executives went to Japan and saw it and said, “This is really something.” As a movie service, primarily at that point a movie service, it was obvious that we would have to make a play in HD. And the executives at the time, we went to every ATSC and FCC Advisory Council meeting in Washington. We became founding members of ATSC, which was the broadcasters trying to launch HD. And it was only when HBO launched high-def — and the broadcasters didn’t — because they were still screwing around with things, that we pulled out of ATSC and said, “We’re going to launch this without you guys.” And that was a proud moment as well. The digital cable earlier than that was probably a revolution in itself. But HD itself was the one that hit mainstream America and it was good to be working on that in the early days.
Arenstein: Do you consider yourself a revolutionary?
Cuttner: Revolutionary is just a matter of how many arrows you have in your back and if you get the same thing accomplished without the arrows, that’s revolutionary-evolutionary.
Arenstein: That’s OK, too. I know you’re too modest to say this, but you are known for being the behind–the-scenes guy, as you said, and building so much of HBO’s technology.
Cuttner: Along with a big team of folks who are unsung heroes in their own right.
Arenstein: Yes, yes. But I mean in my research for this interview, that’s what I heard over and over and over again, that you are a tireless worker and not only for HBO’s benefit, but for the industry’s benefit, even in cases where HBO is not really a player. For example, the CALM Act [Commercial Audio Loudness Mitigation Act]. Talk about what the CALM Act is and what you did on that effort.
Cuttner: Well, there’s a certain level of altruism of HBO has the resources, has the commitment from the people to send out into the industry. I’ll take one step back. When we did satellite scrambling in the early 80s, HBO didn’t have any sports. But we knew that a contemporary system that would be widely adopted across the industry needed to have blackouts. That was built into the system before ESPN ever got on board. So the CALM Act was also one of those — because if you think about HBO’s distribution, it goes from the highest end home theater, where we have spent years making sure when you tune across the dial, and you land on HBO, you recognize what it is. We don’t put [logo] bugs in the lower right hand corner. But we ensure that that channel stands out by its quality. And you’d be surprised—you don’t even think about it—now you’re going to go home and try it.
Arenstein: Now I’m going to think about it, yes.
Cuttner: And you’re going to tune across the dial and you’re going to land on HBO and it’s going to be different. And it won’t be because it’s a different show, it will be because it looks better and sounds better. One of the things that was occurring in the background of the CALM Act was you could be very ham-handed and take the audio levels and squish them down and be very flat and be completely unappealing, but, in that sort of pablum way, consumers wouldn’t be offended by loudness.
We run Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and guess what? They’re loud, they want to be loud, the creative intent was for them to be loud. So my involvement with the CALM Act was actually to ensure that loud is OK. It’s the improper use of loud in a commercial environment—because that’s what the “C” in CALM is for—was that HBO could continue doing what we do, bringing that entertainment experience to users and not be impacted by some overly broad legislation. It’s a challenge we’ve always had with our audio in particular because it ranges from home theater to a five-inch speaker in a hotel. And HBO has huge distribution in hotels so we have to walk that fine line and the CALM Act, participation in that was to make sure that the cable interests were well-served, you know, all our MVPDs, all of those interests were served so that we didn’t lose the differentiation. And people wouldn’t say, “Oh, I don’t need to do that, I’m just going to get a DVD.” And we’d be right back to the early days of people watching VHS tapes instead of subscribing to cable.
Arenstein: You also are known as a leader in the standards area. Why is that important?
Cuttner: There’s a component of that that’s altruism. Actually, though, it’s also an interesting collegial—I’ll tell you a sidebar about the cable industry’s collegial group. It’s a mechanism where technical people without the competition of business folks trying to solve problems, and the standards process is actually an interesting one because that’s where people go with their new ideas. Because standardization is about interchange. If HBO went up on the satellite with a proprietary signal and everyone had to buy a dish for different channels, that wouldn’t have worked. If our satellite scrambling system was proprietary and people had to go invent another one for a different channel, that wouldn’t work. So there’s a benefit to standardization just for the facilitation of interchange so that we could buy a movie from Warner Brothers and buy a movie from Universal and we wouldn’t have to build a different tape machine. We wouldn’t have to build a different infrastructure. So there’s a self-serving part of it.
But let me sidebar on the collegial nature. One of my first experiences in the cable industry was the then-legendary Wendell Bailey, who was the head of technology at NCTA. He put together in the early days of cable this engineering committee that was the MSOs, consumer electronics manufacturers, the programmers, the vendors and even occasional FCC folks would show up, John Wong in particular. And it was a rolled-up-your-sleeves no competition, let’s figure this out for the benefit of the industry. And it was some of that early work that really got me exposed to this concept of “we’re all in this together.” We may be competitors on the subscriber counts or the programming deals or whatever, but the pie will be bigger if everyone works together and it worked. It was really a very—I still keep in touch with the few remaining folks in that group that are alive today, but I’m dating myself.
Arenstein: OK. Let’s look ahead. What technologies—not necessarily those being used at HBO—generally what technologies excite you the most about the future of cable television generally and then maybe HBO specifically?
Cuttner: Well, there’s the evolution and revolutionary part of this. I think the taking content to any device anywhere is certainly a big watershed. How that plays out is going to differ over time. Certainly today’s environment, the MSOs are all-in on Wi-Fi. They went and played the game with the FCC on spectrum and paid billions of dollars and then said, “Wait a minute. There’s billions of Wi-Fi devices, the spectrum is free, it’s unlicensed, we can build the infrastructure.” So that’s one of those things where it’s a facilitating technology to allow content to be everywhere on every device. I think that’s one of the components of the future. I think we get into the storytelling aspect of it, where technology is just a facilitator and as we sit here today in late 2014, the next great things are going to be probably high dynamic range where a television set, even a motion picture in a theater is a dim experience in a darkened room, but that’s not reflecting of the real world. So there are new technologies, whether that’s the wider color gamut or the high dynamic range where the immersive experience will actually be more possible than it has been in the past. I think that’s one that’s got me excited.
Arenstein: We’ve mentioned Bob Zitter. Talk about mentors, your mentors at HBO. In the industry in general. I know you were a ham operator, a ham radio operator, I’m assuming you know Ron Hranac. Talk about some of your mentors and colleagues in the tech side of the business.
Cuttner: I would say in the category of too numerous to mention I think it works that way because—you know, there are the Jim Chiddixes of the world, who in his own way, figured stuff out. If you look at people who have got inventions behind them, or aha moments where he could say, “Well, I could re-purpose this laser,” and that kind of stuff. Wendell Bailey was great because he would tutor all of these people on the engineering committee. He would start the meeting with, “Here’s what’s going on in Washington and why and what does it mean?” The politics of what would be now be characterized as like a “House of Cards” kind of show.
So that’s kind of a mentor in a sense. And there have been other technical mentors that I’ve had over the years who would do more about just being a calmative effect. OK, this may be risky but here’s how you mitigate that risk and go and bring the project in on time and under budget. Bob Seidel, who was my old boss from CBS, my mantra and I think his is too, we’ve never bought a shrink-wrapped product in our careers. One of the things that I learned when I was at CBS, I was in the system development group. And it was an interesting mechanism because it was a group of people who have as their charter doing things that have never been done before. And he would say, “Oh, they’re just crazy people in a lab doing stuff.” It was like, no, those were requests to do a project that have a budget, have a timeframe, and are necessary to accomplish a business purpose. And I took as—that’s something I took with me to HBO, that it was the ability to be out there, take a technical risk, whether that is re-purposing. The satellite scrambling vendor was a military vendor that had never made a consumer product before. And it was military-grade encryption commercialized into a consumer product. That was Linkabit that became MACOM that became GI [General Instrument] that became Motorola that became—so that was the progression of that particular technology. That was applying something that had never been done before. There were mentors in that process, lots of people on that side, like Dr. Woo Paik, who is arguably the father of what we know as HD.
So there were a lot of people I was exposed to and just was a sponge and stuck little pieces from.
Arenstein: What about—in a very, very generic sense for the layperson—what’s the layperson have to look forward to watching television in the next few years? What are things that are going to really knock their socks off?
Cuttner: The fact that it might not be a television. To use the Millennial point, because it’s not us watching TV, what’s the next monetization wave of making money from watching TV? And the traditional picture quality sort of metric is you have a large screen TV and the larger the screen, the more quality you need to have and all that. But in fact, if you have a tablet you’re holding in front of your face, that proximity to your retina makes that a much more challenging environment to view the screen. And that’s the device you feed from the crappiest Wi-Fi router in your house. Not a good scenario. So some of that wow-ness is going to be a different viewing experience, sort of in the cable sense is TV Everywhere going to be cable? Is it going to be still wire, is it going to be wireless, how is that going to play out?
Arenstein: It’s early to ask you about a legacy, your personal legacy, because we’re hoping for many, many more years of wonderful things at HBO. If you had to have your legacy written today, what would you like it to be?
Cuttner: Invisible Number Two.
Cuttner: That’s sort of tongue-in-cheek. But I really never wanted to go riding on a parade on a big white horse and carry a flag. I’ll say it in all seriousness. It’s really been a team effort. I look at some of the people at HBO. Elmer Musser, who runs our broadcast engineering and R&D stuff, and just brilliant folks. You probably have never heard his name.
Arenstein: No, I haven’t.
Cuttner: Yet he has little pockets of claim to fame. He actually is one of the few people that has a personal technical Emmy Award because Emmy Awards—it’s a long story, but Elmer was on duty the night “Captain Midnight,” who was opposed to some HBO scrambling and charging money, jammed HBO’s satellite signal. At that point there was no way to identify the source of the interference. And Elmer, who is also a ham, modified a Morse Code technique to actually identify the transmission. And had that system been in place, they would have known where Captain Midnight was from—aka John MacDougall—and he was in Orlando, Florida, but that’s a side story. And Elmer took that invention, took it to the FCC and proposed it against the odds of all AT&T and other people who were inventing identification systems. Proposed it and in fact, that system, as humble as Morse Code is, has prevented dozens of interference events and he was awarded the Technical Emmy. One, Emmy for the technology and one, because he did it in his garage and came up with the idea. So that’s a pretty good accolade for him and he’s part of the team behind the scenes at HBO that no one knows.
Arenstein: Now I know you’re too modest to sit to say that you’ve won a number of awards, too. So when you get these awards, what’s your speech like? If you want to be a background number two guy, what do you say?
Arenstein: And you sit down. Fair enough. So you know, you’ve shortened those rubber chicken dinners. OK, well, that’s good. You also have dozens of patents and patent pending. Talk about that.
Cuttner: There’s a lot of—I wouldn’t say there’s sort of rules of thumb about why people are inventors. Most of it is labor-saving or laziness. And in some cases, just an idea that you have the resources or time and can push the patent through the process, which takes five to ten years. So in some cases, the patents were related to things—for example, one that just expired was the team effort that actually patented the user interface for what we now know as video-on-demand, which predated the Full Service Network. It was in that era back in the 90s. So some of the patents are like that; some of the patents are just goofy little ideas that HBO decided would go through the process and pay all the lawyer fees and everything else. There’s some that are kind of cool that may or may not ever see the light of day.
Arenstein: Like what, for example?
Cuttner: One of the ones that a colleague had this idea and this was like, oh, yeah. It was one of those aha moments, was this concept that when you watch content on a DVR, all the sports, for example, the stuff at the bottom of the screen is all old. While you’re watching the old content, what if those scores were new? And the patent even goes so far as to say, well, what if you don’t want the spoilers to know what games have already been decided? So it was this whole concept of updating time shifted content but not necessarily all of it.
Arenstein: Interesting. About, I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago, I was reporting at an SCTE show, somebody gave me a camera, what was called a digital camera in those days…
Cuttner: If you’re holding your hands like this, it was probably the original Apple.
Arenstein: And they said, go to So-and-So’s booth and take a picture and bring it back and then write a story about it. I remember I brought the camera back and somebody played on their computer a little bit and there was the picture I had just taken. You’ve got to remember, this was years ago. There was the picture I had taken and it was already on the screen. Then I was going to go out and write the story. I remember thinking, “Holy wow, that’s amazing!” What in your career have you looked at and said, “Wow, that really is cool. I can’t believe it!”
Cuttner: That’s an interesting one because most—again, not the aha moments—but most things that would come to fruition were trials and tests and that sort of thing. The fact that it worked shouldn’t have been a surprise. When I was in Atlanta growing up, I took a photography class and the teacher was the owner of the photography shop, probably self-serving, buy some stuff, and take the class. But he said, “You’ll be kicked out of this class if you ever pull film out of a tank and are surprised by any image that you see. Because in the composition, in the methodical process of taking that photograph, there should be nothing surprising about it. You should have visualized that image before you laid it down on film.” A lot of my projects have been like that. It’s wasn’t like I magically mixed two wrong chemicals together and came up with a bomb. It was a process of “well, we can do this.” Applying a technology that already works to something else: piece of cake. You have to work through how that happens and how it evolves and how it becomes commercialized and cost-effective and all that. But I haven’t had one of those big aha moments.
Arenstein: What energizes you today? You’ve been in this business for a long time, you’ve seen a lot; you’ve seen a great deal of change. What helps you walk into work in the morning with a smile on your face? Why are you charged to go in everyday?
Cuttner: It is that change. It is the knowing that the constancy is the change. You don’t know—many people in television can tell these sort of stories where one day I was sitting at my desk and my phone rang and it was Jerry Levin, chairman of Time Warner: “What kind of TV should I buy?”
Arenstein: What did you say?
Cuttner: Actually at the time, when you say, “What kind of laptop should I get or what kind of TV should I buy?” If someone really knows their stuff and I’m not saying—it’s more of a question than you think. It’s more about what’s your lifestyle. What do you like to do? What are you going to do with this thing? And it turns out there was one particular, at that time it was called “improved definition television.” It was long before there was high-def or even a glimmer of high-def. But it turns out that the technology was moot because his wife had an architect and the TV had to fit in this space. So that was the end of the discussion. OK, get the TV that fits in the space.
Arenstein: I think we’re about finished, correct? We have a little bit more time. Five minutes. Let’s see; what were we going to talk about then, for five minutes.
What are some of the best, or most rewarding industry-wide work that you have done? You’ve been on so many committees, you’ve presented at NAMIC, you’ve done all kinds of things. What two or three stand out for you? I know you’ve worked with SCTE for a lot of years.
Arenstein: Probably the “it just works” piece, which if you didn’t think about it, you just plugged it in, that sort of works. I think digital compression. In the early days of digital compression, when the MPEG was still getting figured out, MPEG-1 moving to MPEG-2, you could buy an encoding system from Motorola and it wouldn’t work with S-A [Scientific-Atlanta] set-tops. And you could buy an encoder from S-A and it wouldn’t work for Motorola set-tops. There was a lot of effort, and the cable industry even now still has that bifurcation of Arris versus Cisco. The fact that the video plays across everything—forget the conditional access and the guides and all that. The part that HBO cared about was we would put up one signal and we would let that one signal go everywhere because it was dis-economic to do anything else. That was the similar thing on video-on-demand; where Time Warner Cable did the video-on-demand spec and I got involved with CableLabs to write the encoding spec because it had to play across all the vendors. If it didn’t, the economic model of giving consumers free access to on-demand content would have failed miserably. So it’s that kind of “it just works.” It’s the fruition of a standard effort. You get the people in the room, everyone goes through their due process and consensus building and all that, but at the end of the day, you want one result that’s for the betterment of cable-kind, mankind, whatever you want to call it.
Arenstein: I guess that’s again impinging on the question or the issue of standards. Preparing for this interview, I was talking with—“Why are standards important?” And I realized that, well, you know I have a BlackBerry and I’d like to get something from my BlackBerry to my iPhone and I can’t do it. And that’s kind of what you’re saying. If the phone people had that kind of attitude, I’d be able to do that, is that right?
Cuttner: And there’s economic reasons why they don’t want to do it. And this is one of those things you’re going to go back and check this: there are very few ubiquitous standards that actually work globally. Two that come to mind: AA batteries and Group 3 FAX. You can send a FAX from any machine to anywhere in the world and it works. Now you may not get grayscale and all that, but you’ll get a picture out the other side. AA batteries are the same. You go anywhere in the world—other sizes not so much, but those are the two, when you think about standardization, the microcosm of S-A set-tops and Motorola set-tops. But if you think globally, the standards effort is not as complete as it probably could be.
Arenstein: Exactly. I guess the last question: what kinds of hurdles are there still for the cable industry now from a tech standpoint?
Cuttner: Technologically I think part of it is the evolution in the economic environment. There’s so many great ideas that the cable industry, or MVPDs in general, but the cable industry in particular, could go do but they’re being done not as a rebuild, but an evolution. If Wall Street weren’t breathing down everyone’s neck, you could say, “Oh. Well, I’ll get my little forklift and we’ll change out all this stuff and we’ll go do something new.” And if you look at what cable’s accomplished without changing the fundamental architecture, whether that’s adding two-way for VOD, adding cable modems, adding VOIP to those cable modems, adding over-the-top streaming services, all that, the fundamental architecture hasn’t changed. And I think that’s the piece that’s going to be the challenge for the industry is to keep that pace of revolution and evolution along with the economic environment that it has to live in. That’s a big challenge.
Arenstein: Great. Craig Cuttner, thank you so much. This was a lot of fun. I enjoyed this.
END OF INTERVIEW