Interview Date: August 21, 2020
Interview Location: Zoom call
Interviewer: Stewart Schley at Cable Center’s Denver facility
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
STEWART SCHLEY: Hello there and greetings. Welcome to this edition of the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series coming to you from the library of the Cable Center, Denver, Colorado, in August of 2020. And I’m joined via the magic of Zoom with Joe Camicia who has a really interesting and sort of unique set of perspectives on the cable industry, its development, both from a corporate management and operations standpoint and also a regulatory standpoint. Joe has done time at the municipal government level and certainly in the state government and lots to talk about. So Joe Camicia, thank you so much for joining us today.
JOE CAMICIA: Thank you for having me. Done time is an apt way to put it.
SCHLEY: We will see about that as we go along, but there is something about your resume that I can’t resist asking about before we talk about cable TV, but one of your first jobs, Joe, and maybe it was your first job, I think you were a teenager, you find yourself working for a guy called Al Davis. And Al Davis, for those in the audience who don’t recognize, was the managing general partner, effectively the owner, of the Oakland Raiders and a legendary figure in sports and football. How did that happen?
CAMICIA: Before I get into that let me just say thanks to you and thanks to the Cable Center for having me today. I’m so sorry we couldn’t do this in Denver because I’d dearly like to see the center and the museum, but I’m sure I will get up there. As for Al Davis, when I was a kid I was a nonstop letter writer and most letters I wrote were all the same letter, “Give me a job” and I wrote them to football teams and baseball teams and basketball teams and everybody I could think of. In those days if you wrote a letter people would answer you, which is unlike today. So I had this correspondence going with Al Davis and he would write me back and he eventually wrote me back and said, “Contact the equipment manager.” Which I did and I started to annoy him. Then in 1969 the Raiders and the Cowboys had a rookie game at the Oakland Coliseum. Only rookie game I can think of. And the starting quarterback for the Cowboys was Roger Staubach, starting quarterback for the Raiders was a guy named Eldridge Dickey and he was relieved in the second half by Kenny Stabler. So I was standing there waiting to thrust myself in front of the equipment manager and he walked by and I stuck my hand out and told him who I was and he said, “Oh, Joe, we need you.” And for the next 20 years I worked on and off for the Raiders, my brother worked on and off for the Raiders. It was a great experience.
SCHLEY: Amazing. And it’s hard to encapsulate in a nutshell, but what did you learn from a guy like — from Al Davis? How did he inform your career subsequently?
CAMICIA: I’ve got no negatives. He was a very controversial guy, but he was the most loyal focused person I ever met. He showed up at my dad’s funeral, he and John Madden and Ron Wolf, all very loyal people. I’m a kid. They could get anybody to do what I was doing, but they made you feel like you were part of the family and part of the team and that’s what I’ve tried to remember as I manage people.
SCHLEY: That’s terrific. Moving kind of into the subject du jour, which is of course cable television and the history, there is sort of a storied, what we call a franchise, a storied cable franchise that came to take place in the community of — in the east bay area of Alameda, California. I’m just to open it up for you to tell me why we care. What made the Alameda cable deployment interesting and what was your role in and around that?
CAMICIA: Alameda was really sort of at the height of the franchise wars. Cable was just coming out of the truck-chaser era and began — you know, all within a couple of years we saw the launch of CNN, ESPN, MTV, Disney, and people in cable began to realize it wasn’t just about selling reception. We now could offer these incredible new services that people did not have access to. So while they had built most of the classic systems that provided reception, they were just getting started in more urban franchises. And Alameda was a place that was an upscale community of about 63,000 at the time, was a Navy town with a lot of retirees, and it had become a target because CBS, United, Island City Cable, which was a local operation and store, were all interested in the franchise. So it became this day to day hand-to-hand combat kind of situation that we found ourselves in.
SCHLEY: And who was we?
CAMICIA: I got contacted by both CBS and United. I was on the planning commission at the time and was active in local politics and they were looking for local people to come in and help ease the way. So I weighed the differences and the benefits and it seemed like it would be far better to beat CBS than be with CBS. We were going to get all the credit if they won. And we thought that United was pretty well organized. So I was able to bring along a couple of folks, Darlene Gardner, Rosemary Riley who’s been a long-time political consultant in the Bay Area, Penny Stanley who later worked in the legislature for Assembly member John Dutcher, and Suzanne Lindsay who was active in every charity and community group in town. The guy running the show was Terry Solay who was maybe one of the best salespeople I’ve ever met. He was one of those guys that could sell ice in Alaska. If you were with him for five minutes you felt like you’d known him your whole life. So he came in, we put him in front of the Rotary Clubs and service clubs and put in front of the athletic groups, senior citizen organizations, and we had a nonstop series of events selling United. CBS did much the same.
SCHLEY: So Joe, explain for the uninitiated, you’re talking about Rotary Clubs, you’re talking about city advisory people, there was an immense political aspect to what we called the franchise wars, right? Because what’s happening? You’re trying to win a vote, right?
CAMICIA: There were five on the council. We were trying to gain three votes. And the night of the vote was actually interesting. We figured we had two votes, but we couldn’t figure out a third, so how do you win this thing with two votes? And Jim Davis, who was our local lawyer, came up with the idea of ranking the companies one to four and those with the least number of numbers would be the winner. So two of the council members we thought would vote for United did vote for them first and they voted for CBS fourth. So United wins the day and I will never forget — all the key CBS executives were there, George Bradenburg who later went on to AOL fame, Gene Jankowski who was probably one of the half dozen most significant guys in the broadcast industry at the time. They both charge up to the microphone and say, “We got cheated.” Which was — to think of it today, to think of those guys marching up to a microphone at a local city council meeting is hysterical.
SCHLEY: Well, let me interject. Why was CBS, a television company, a media and broadcast national presence, interested in the Alameda, California cable franchise to begin with?
CAMICIA: There was an interest in the broadcast industry in those days in expanding out into something new. And I mean I’ll get into — I’m going to talk about KQED a little later and they were much the same at the local level, but CBS really wanted to get into the cable business not only from the operations side but certainly from the programming side as well with their service. So it became a huge battle between United who we thought were better connected locally and CBS who was incredibly — had this position as the Tiffany network. They were television.
SCHLEY: So one reason Alameda is interesting is because of that, what you just explained, and the other reason I think you can talk about is it was maybe the birthplace or for a while the centerpiece of a really different approach to building out a cable system architecturally, right?
CAMICIA: We were the first — I like to say first and last star-switched Times Fiber fiber-to-the-home system. And it was a spectacular system. The pictures were amazing, but the electronics were all located outside the home and they would plant them in what I call refrigerators of about — there were about 15 or 20 converters in each refrigerator and we had to go door to door to sell those in the community, which was not a popular thing. So they went along, people were enjoying the service, but United was not enjoying the incredible electrical costs to pay for those outdoor converters where they’re mounted to.
SCHLEY: But Joe, what was the economic appeal? Why even bother? Why not just build a typical tree and branch cascaded cable system?
CAMICIA: It was all part of the sales pitch. You know, United offered — I think we were going to offer 120 channels and 880 megahertz, if I remember right, and this incredible brand-new system that would be the first of its kind to deploy fiber.
SCHLEY: OK. It’s interesting because fast forwarding today, we have fiber-deep networks everywhere. It’s become the standard architecture for cable. But it was very new in Alameda.
CAMICIA: Oh, it was very unusual. I mean CBS by comparison, I think they offered 56 channels in a standard sort of coax configuration. So we were able to tout the fact that this was going to be an amazing future, one-of-a-kind system, first of its kind in the country.
SCHLEY: So for you, did this vault or provoke your interest in cable? This was the start of really your multiyear period in the industry, right?
CAMICIA: I’ve always been interested. I mean I went to school at San Francisco State which was famous at the time for having a broadcast department that was second to none and I was interested in advertising and politics and I wanted to merge the two and then when this came along, my God, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was everything I liked rolled into one.
SCHLEY: Where did it take you? I mean you sort of you had a succession of companies in the cable industry that you worked for. Just kind of take us through that progression.
CAMICIA: Before I get out of — there were two interesting things that happened in Alameda as a result of that franchising battle. There was a local real estate guy named Tom Reiman who went to all of the franchise meetings. He was a real estate agent and I would see him at the Western Show, I’d see him at the National Show, and I figured this is a guy who wants to get a job with one of the MSOs. No. For the last 30 years he has built an operation and built more cable plant and more communications plant than anybody I’ve met in cable, all via a company called the Broadband Group. He’s done it in a nontraditional way where rather than go to the cities or the counties or local government to gain franchises, he went to the developers. So he’s made deal with developers that have built giant 30,000, 40,000-unit developments in Florida and Virginia and — I mean it’s an amazing company.
SCHLEY: Right, and is it — would you characterize it as sort of a private cable company as opposed to a publicly franchised company?
CAMICIA: That is a good way to describe it. He’s involved in smart cities now so he’s helping cities build out those, not infrastructure but — all because of Alameda. I think if that guy had not lived in Alameda he might not have ever gotten in that business.
SCHLEY: Well, sort of closing the books on it, what you called the switched star or the star switched architecture, which was novel and breakthrough but didn’t work economically, how long did it last and what did they do? Did they sort of rebuild them in a traditional way?
CAMICIA: Absolutely. Yeah, it lasted about a year and a half. Didn’t last long at all.
SCHLEY: So back to the question. What’s next for Joe in the cable industry at this point?
CAMICIA: From there it was pretty clear that we’re out of the truck-chaser era and we needed to really ramp up marketing and all of the operators felt much the same way. So we started the Bay Area Cable Marketing Co-op.
SCHLEY: I remember.
CAMICIA: And we elected Diane Schneiderjohn at Viacom to be the head honcho of that operation. We picked J. Walter Thompson as our ad agency and we produced some mailers and a slick TV commercial and rolled along. There was this interest on the part of some broadcasters in cable and vice versa and I met Rod Thole and Tony Tiano at a Bay Area Cable Club meeting. Tony Tiano ran KQED, the public TV station in San Francisco, and he was a protégé of Rod Thole who was one of the senior operations folks at Heritage Media. So I began to talk to Tiano on a regular basis and I eventually did a lot of consulting for him and he wanted to be involved in cable in the worst way and one of the things I told him we needed to do was get somebody in cable on the KQED board of directors. It was — KQED is a sort of Bay Area institution that everybody feels strongly about. People actually campaign to be on the KQED board. Condoleezza Rice was on the KQED board. So I say let’s get somebody from cable. So we approached Ed Allen and he readily said yes. You know, Western Communications. So with Ed’s sort of blessing we began to work the cable operators in the Bay Area and did all sorts of cooperative kinds of things where if you became a cable subscriber you’d get a free membership to KQED. And Tiano, who’s one of the best businesspeople I’ve ever met, took an eight-page TV Guide style monthly program guide and turned it into this slick 250-page-a-month city magazine. He was an amazing businessman. So we began to work with all the operators on those kinds of cooperative deals and thanks to Ed Allen it made it much easier to do so.
SCHLEY: And I’m really super glad you introduced it because this notion of the regional or the localized marketing co-op was interesting because cable companies didn’t really compete head to head, right? So they had the ability to join forces.
CAMICIA: Absolutely. And there were a good 20, 25 operators in the Bay Area. So it was really difficult to do any kind of television advertising because you had such a narrow piece of the pie, but acting as a co-op we were all able to cover the whole Bay Area with a slick commercial and an 800 number.
SCHLEY: And did it work? Did it help move the needle forward?
CAMICIA: It certainly helped United where I was. Yes, a real plus.
SCHLEY: You know, I at the time worked for a trade publication called Multichannel News. I was based on Los Angeles and the names you’re rifling off, Ed Allen for instance, was — how do you characterize him? If you didn’t know he was really sort of a legendary very influential guy in the market.
CAMICIA: I would have never had a chance to know him were it not for KQED. He was an amazing businessman. I mean he understood things about business that I couldn’t put together in a million years. He was the kind of guy that you give a bale of hay and some duct tape and six months later he’d be a bale of hay millionaire.
SCHLEY: And I remember, Joe, hearing Ed speak a few times in public. You’ve been around political figures and speechmakers your whole life, but he was a commanding presence at the microphone. Really good.
CAMICIA: Commanding presence and a nice man. A lot of folks at his level had an ego, but he didn’t.
SCHLEY: So the marketing co-op is out there beating the drum for cable, you’re making progress, you have a really nice affiliation with public television, with KQED. What was next for you?
CAMICIA: Next I was asked by the state Assembly to come up and help jump start the Assembly television project. They wanted to do a local version of C-SPAN and we built the studio, worked with the operators to gain carriage, and basically got that up and going. It was later rolled or reformatted as the California Channel, run for many years by the great John Hancock who I think just retired recently. But it was a great tool for the cable industry.
SCHLEY: Listening to you, I think one thing that’s remarkable and maybe we overlook this is that this is all pre-internet. Today to put up a server and telecast a city council meeting or a state Assembly meeting, anybody could do it. It was pretty novel for the time though, right? And it really drew on what the cable industry could do well, I think.
CAMICIA: It was most unusual and it was a huge plus for the industry to be able to provide this service, not just through C-SPAN in Washington but Cal Channel in California and others around the country. So it was a great plus for the industry. And It was a plus for the Assembly.
SCHLEY: And for the state government. Was that sort of your segue into working in various incarnations at a policy level and an advisory level in state government or how did that bridge —
CAMICIA: Other than campaigns it was the first time I’d been involved as a staff member in the building, as we call it. So that was the start.
SCHLEY: You mentioned Ed Allen, you mentioned Hancock. Were there other people, Joe, that you found really particularly influential in your career on the cable side of your career or other names that pop up?
CAMICIA: Certainly, Dave Anderson who was a communications guy at both Cox and Charter.
SCHLEY: Charter, right.
CAMICIA: CNBC, if I remember right. Jeffrey Sinsheimer, spectacularly good lawyer that worked for the California Cable Association.
SCHLEY: Yeah, CCTV.
CAMICIA: Jeremy Stern who was a partner at the time at Cole Raywid. I mean there’s a huge list of — I’ll think of more as we go.
SCHLEY: So but I’d invite you to talk though about the regulatory posture at the time. Where — how was cable being perceived at a state government level and how would you describe the relationships and the perception of the industry from a government posture?
CAMICIA: For all its faults the initial franchising process was an open and transparent process. It was more PR than it was anything else. And as we got into re-franchising that process began to move behind closed doors in conference rooms and it was the cities and the counties versus the operators. And it really did not, I thought, benefit the customer at that point. Much to my luck, a lot of the folks that I worked for refused to make a bad deal in order to just make a deal. People like Tom Shafer, Lou Borelli, Rod Thole. I mean that was a huge plus. So you didn’t make any deals that really hampered or hurt the customers, but that began to change and it began to change in such a way that I scratched my head and thought my God, this is no longer useful. This is not right.
SCHLEY: Let me ask you to explain. What was re-franchising? When you say re-franchising, the original franchise came to term and had to be renegotiated?
CAMICIA: Right. And there were a lot of franchises that were signed initially in the early to mid ’70s that were coming up and needed to be renewed. And the LFAs in the cities looked at this process as a way to get paid. It was a way in order to tax people without taxing them because the increase went on the cable operator’s bill.
SCHLEY: If I may, this is the franchise fee is what you’re talking about, right?
CAMICIA: And all sorts of other fees. You know, cities wanted all kinds of goodies that they could use at city hall and they wanted the cable operator to build them and then build their customers for whatever they wanted.
SCHLEY: So it really was a hidden tax? I mean effectively.
SCHLEY: And it’s funny, we had Lou Borelli in not too long ago. We did one of these conversations with him. But it did require some delicacy. You didn’t want to imperil or ruin your relationship with the city council, right? So how was that line walked?
CAMICIA: Well, first and foremost there’s — I went from Marcus to Charter in southern California and they primarily asked me to move to southern California because there was a lawyer on the other side, a guy named Bill Marty Karina, who was very difficult for the operators to deal with. And in retrospect this guy was a spectacularly good lawyer. I mean he just got it. He knew where the leverage points were. He knew how to manipulate the operators. He was very tough competition. So having dealt with him, we figured look, if we’re going to have to make a deal that hurts the customers let’s not make it. Tom Shafer was an operations guy at that point and he had much the same feeling that we couldn’t put the burden on the customers.
SCHLEY: So what did you do though? I mean you don’t want to walk away from the franchise, right?
CAMICIA: We knew as well though that we would get extensions. And it would go six months or a year, but we would continue to get extensions. That was the point I began to question, what are we doing here? Why is the operator — there was considerable consolidation at that point. There were not 25 operators in the Bay Area anymore, but I think two or three at the most, so it was a process that really wasn’t working anymore for anyone as far as I was concerned.
SCHLEY: And Joe, just level set me. This era is what? What years are we talking about where this system began to kind of degrade?
CAMICIA: Mid to late ‘90s.
SCHLEY: Well, let me ask a philosophical question first. You said something really interesting about the customer’s voice wasn’t being represented in these — in this dialogue. I just invite you to explore that a little bit more. What did you mean and what was missing in terms of the customer focal point?
CAMICIA: What I found in those negotiation sessions were the cities didn’t — they didn’t come in and say, “Look, we want you to cut a dollar off the monthly bill to give people a break.” They’d say, “We’d like you to build a studio here in city hall and man it and operate it.” Or we’d like you to — it could have been anything. It was even not cable-related. Those kinds of — we’d like you to buy computers for everybody’s desk. Those sorts of requests.
SCHLEY: I mean your sense, I presume, was that if that were agreed to subscribers could end up paying for that, right?
SCHLEY: So what was the remedy, what was the solution, where did we go from there? Or was there a remedy?
CAMICIA: At that point, and certainly where I was in cable, there was no remedy. It was what it was, to quote someone famous. It wasn’t until I got to Sacramento that there was an opportunity to change that process. And AT&T and Verizon at the time were flirting with the video business and really wanted — but they didn’t want to go city to city and who could blame them? So they put forth a bill that we worked on over the course of a year that would change local franchising to state franchising. A significant huge benefit.
SCHLEY: I know what happened, but it seems like that was such an audacious idea at the time, right? You’re wiping out an entire history of relationships between cities and cable companies, weren’t you?
SCHLEY: So how did it manage to get passed? What were the politics behind it?
CAMICIA: AT&T and Verizon were really the driving force in having AB-2987 introduced and they wanted to get into the video business, but didn’t want to do it city to city, as I mentioned. So they were arguably the most connected players in Sacramento. And they found an author and found a sponsor in the Assembly speaker and really went after this piece of legislation. And I was at the time working for the senate pro tempore and he put me in charge since I had a cable background and he asked me to be in charge of the negotiations for the senate for this broadband bill. So I was able to craft just about everything I wanted that I had thought about for years into this bill to make it easier to renew franchises at the state level by filling out a form rather than negotiated your life away.
SCHLEY: Wow. What were examples beyond that of what you wanted? Like what were you able to inject into that legislation that was good, that you believed was possible?
CAMICIA: This was the end of — what’s the word?
CAMICIA: The end of the blackmail.
SCHLEY: OK, yeah.
CAMICIA: You know, by working at the PUC and ironically the guy that ended up being the cable franchising guru at the California PUC used to work at the California Cable Television Association. So he had a great background in the industry obviously and we crafted a form that was fair and easy for anybody to process. So we ended a whole series — I still can’t think of the right word.
SCHLEY: I’m with you and I don’t want to leer too far over to the negative side, but I know what you’re saying. But what happened to the city franchise piece? Did that revenue stream get wiped out for government?
CAMICIA: They kept their franchise fees, so they were kept whole, but they really lost the ability to hammer the operators at every term.
CAMICIA: Very good. That’s why you’re in journalism.
SCHLEY: (laughter) And in retrospect now, you know better than most the unintended consequences sometimes of large pieces of legislation, has the net effect been positive? Did the bill do what you think it was hoping to do?
CAMICIA: I think the net effect has been positive for people in the cable business that have franchises. But AT&T completely flubbed things, along with Verizon, and never really got into the video business in any sort of substantial way. They got a franchise here and there, but they never really followed through.
SCHLEY: Yeah. What was interesting is if you had followed the history of cable over the last 20 or 30 years the telephone companies forever were on the brink, right? They’re about to enter the video — but here they even, albeit on a limited scale as you point out, it really did happen. There really were telco cable systems constructed and still exist all around the country. So it’s interesting.
CAMICIA: But not to the scale they hoped.
SCHLEY: True. Yes, absolutely. What is your overarching view of sort of a proper touch of regulation as it relates to a cable industry that is fluid and every changing? What’s the right principle?
CAMICIA: As I, and I don’t follow it as closely as I used to, but as I look at the public utilities commission today people love to criticize the place and I actually think they do a smart job in allowing businesses and industries and new ideas to grow before they ever get their fingers involved. Today in some ways I disagree with the whole effort to regulate Uber and Lyft, but it’s better that they waited for Uber and Lyft to become mature before they ever got involved.
SCHLEY: Right, rather than stifle the development of an industry.
CAMICIA: There were plenty of people that were clamoring five years ago let’s regulate Uber and Lyft, but they let it go and I think it was smart to let it go.
SCHLEY: So one thing that I find interesting in talking to you is there aren’t that many people who span the industry side and the policy side or the advisory side. And I’m just curious about how that transition has sort of played with you. You take this industry knowledge and to a place where it really can be used, but did you feel like you were on the other side sometimes from your old colleagues and friends or how did that sort of figure?
CAMICIA: Absolutely. No question. But when you get asked — for example, I was asked to join the Assembly TV project and that was, I thought, an opportunity, but it’s also, it’s the kind of thing you can’t really say no to that. I mean if you’re in government relations and they want your help and you tell them, “I don’t think so” good luck being in government relations from then on.
SCHLEY: You’re going to do it.
CAMICIA: (laughter) Yes.
SCHLEY: You know, if you look at the kind of longevity you’ve had in cable and you’ve seen the industry iterate to become things it wasn’t, to be a major internet service provider medium, what do you sort of think is next or around the corner for this industry? Where do you see it going?
CAMICIA: I know everybody loves to predict the demise of the cable industry, but it ain’t dead yet. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think they will figure out a way to survive. I mean I am interested in what’s going on with the whole fixed wireless world. I mean I think it’s incredible that these dishes, now the size of salad plates, are able to be deployed. We used to ridicule that industry and now I think it’s pretty impressive. So I think there’s a lot of interesting things happening and I think as cable meets new competition they’ll figure out ways to compete.
SCHLEY: You remember well a gentleman who worked in California for his career. That was Paul Kagan, a well-known industry analyst out of Carmel, and he used to tell me that he thought the cable industry was always at its best when its back was against the wall. Do you subscribe to that viewpoint?
CAMICIA: I think there’s some truth to that.
SCHLEY: What has sort of been satisfying to you, kind of taking you back to your cable days really, other than collecting a paycheck every two weeks? What was fun or sort of enervating about being in this business?
CAMICIA: Initially it was new. Cable was really still sort of the new thing. It wasn’t a mature business and people were still figuring it out and there were services coming and going. So that was fun. From start to finish, it’s funny, people often say to me or I’ve often read that the most gratifying thing you can do in work is be a good manager. I think the most gratifying thing you can do is manage to change the process. Now, what I’m most proud of is starting out in cable franchising and then going to re-franchising and then going to state government and creating a process that changed both. Or helping to create a process. Certainly didn’t create it. But that was the most gratifying arc in this whole thing.
SCHLEY: But you probably, if you think about it in retrospect, you probably couldn’t have achieved that without kind of the journey you had where you did have experience at a municipal franchise level because it’s arcane stuff, right? It’s weird, it’s complicated.
CAMICIA: But I was lucky enough to work with some really good government relations people. I mean Jim Bogart at Crown Media, some great lawyers. Geez, who am I thinking of?
SCHLEY: Gosh, there were a lot in the California market itself.
CAMICIA: Wes Eppler, Cole Raywid.
SCHLEY: And you, while you’re pondering names, you will remember everything seemed to happen in California. It was this fulcrum for activity. You remember the sort of iconic sort of crusty attorney Harold Farrow who —
CAMICIA: Oh, yeah.
SCHLEY: — in the California markets and certainly in Los Angeles really challenged the right of municipalities to have any regulatory role in deciding who could build a cable system.
CAMICIA: He was a powerhouse.
SCHLEY: He was, and I don’t know what the net impact was, but I remember that he wasn’t always on the same page as the California Cable Association and those were influential times.
CAMICIA: Absolutely. In later years a guy I think was equally influential before he moved on to become a judge was the late Dan Brenner.
SCHLEY: Dan Brenner, of course.
CAMICIA: He was very impressive in that he was always two moves ahead.
SCHLEY: Let me ask you this because I think your perspective would be welcomed, and I’m going to get the date wrong, Joe, so you’re going to have to correct me, but the Cable Act of 19xx, which really put the hammer down, I think, on rate regulation, why did that happen? Why did the federal government see fit to almost punish the cable industry at a time?
CAMICIA: If we’re talking about the same year — I’m thinking of the one in ’93 and that was a response to bad customer service or perceived —
SCHLEY: That’s what I’m talking about.
CAMICIA: I think that’s what drove Crown Media out of the cable business. They began to look at this, oh my God, we’re in this uncomfortable highly regulated industry, let’s go back to selling greeting cards.
SCHLEY: That’s what I was talking about and I think the cable industry has always had a tough customer service challenge. It’s a hard business to be in. You’re sending bits down the pipe every second of every day, but I think in that era it was really a couple of really bad actors, right? That kind of tarred the industry at large.
SCHLEY: Joe, what are you doing today? What’s your role with your clients and your firm?
CAMICIA: Since the Schwarzenegger term fizzled, I did some lobbying for a few years. I worked for the California telehealth network which was an operation that was run by Eric Brown, longtime cable guy at Time Warner and Charter. Did some work for the California Emerging Technology fund which is all about broadband and then started a digital marketing firm focused on politics and public affairs. What we do is build coalitions. If you need the governor to sign a bill or veto a bill, we’ll drive five, 600 phone calls into the governor’s office telling him to vote yes or no.
SCHLEY: You still have a taste for politics and public advocacy?
CAMICIA: I’d love to get into the fixed wireless business. That seems interesting as hell. The newspaper business seems really interesting. I’ve got a friend who works at the California Newspaper Publishers and his challenges are fascinating every day. Difficult but fascinating.
SCHLEY: I would endorse the word difficult for sure and I am curious about, since we’re talking about cable and broadband, are we still south of where we need to be in the state with regard to the deployment of broadband kind of universally?
CAMICIA: Ten years ago, we did a survey and we found that we were at 96% availability and over the course of the last 10 years the Emerging Technology Fund has worked at that list and they’re at about 96.75% availability. Which is not bad in a state this size, but I don’t believe there is a digital divide the way they see it. I think the digital divide has more to do with computers and Wi-Fi than anything else. Sure, there’s no broadband in rural California, but you know, there’s no hospitals either. There’s no Starbucks. There’s a reason it’s rural.
SCHLEY: I think you make a great point and it’s overlooked. You’re talking about wireless. A certain percentage of the population is now using simply a handheld device as their internet access instrument.
CAMICIA: Absolutely true.
SCHLEY: You try to write an essay in high school on an iPhone, right?
CAMICIA: Or on a job application.
SCHLEY: Yeah, better point. But what role can the cable industry play going forward in resolving that? Is it a matter of introducing new technologies? Because you can’t always extend fiber to the hinterlands, right?
CAMICIA: I think cable has done what it was asked to do in terms of deploying fiber and building plant. I really do. When I would go to the meetings of the Emerging Technology Fund I would always ask when they were talking about a particular project, how much is a truck roll out to that neighborhood? And nobody ever got what I was talking about. They really never understood the way the business operated. So I’m not sure that there’s an — I’m not sure if there’s a solution to those kinds of challenges.
SCHLEY: Just because of the topology and the density?
CAMICIA: The distance.
SCHLEY: May be unservable. I think your truck roll point though is a good point. It’s not just about physical extension of the network, it’s about supporting the service. Joe, what haven’t we talked about that you think kind of is notable when you sort of at a cocktail party tell people what you’ve done for a living? I mean what strikes you as being some of the big themes?
CAMICIA: Maybe this is why I’m not getting invited to a lot of cocktail parties. (laughter) When I talk about the cable industry I talk about it with a lot of affection because I really enjoyed it so I may not be the best one to ask, but I think in looking back over it just the sort of arc of the industry and where it started. You know, Gene Schneider, who was a very successful businessman, brought cable to Casper, Wyoming because he wanted to see the Friday night fights. Now, this is early to mid ‘50s and he built that into an amazing company. I mean those are the kinds of stories of people that are really without a lot of — without a rulebook figured out how to succeed. That’s what amazes me most about the industry. There’s a lot of people who are very capable and I’m not sure get a lot of credit for it.
SCHLEY: I think that’s a lovely quote. People without a rulebook figured out a way, because I’m not sure some of the early pioneers in cable ever were in this to get rich. I mean some of them did, but I think the challenge and the possibility and kind of the grit was characteristic of those guys.
CAMICIA: Right. It’s true.
SCHLEY: So Joe, this has been — this has, A, been the first digital remote Cable Center oral history we’ve done so thank you for making it easy. And just wanted to thank you for sharing some thoughts about a subject, really franchising, policy, legislation, that is sometimes not addressed or under addressed in the literature of the industry. It is hugely important, right?
CAMICIA: Absolutely. I appreciate this very much, thanks.
SCHLEY: Yeah, it’s been our pleasure and thank you for joining us on this episode. And for the Cable Center and the Hauser Oral History Series with Joe Camicia, I’m Stewart Schley.
CAMICIA: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW