Interview date: July 30, 2023
Interviewer: Jeff Baumgartner
Marc Cohen of Evolution Digital talks about his career path from cable telemarketer to sales and marketing positions to founding and running a MSO to Chief Revenue Officer. His start in the cable industry was as a telemarketer for Continental Cablevision in the Detroit area, and he talks about the experience of door-to-door cable sales in the 1980s. He talks about the influence of Walter Maude at Continental, Mel Hopkins at Comcast, and Steve Miron at Vision Cable in North Carolina. Next Cohen discusses the founding of Longview Communications, providing early internet service, and system rebuilds to accommodate new services. His position at Avail TVN and the move to Evolution Digital are discussed. Cohen then talks about Evolution’s sales approach, the changing position of video for operators, the status of set-top boxes, standards of service, and the partnership with TiVo. He also notes the close-knit nature of the cable industry.
JEFF BAUMGARTNER: Well, hi, and welcome to another edition of the Hauser Oral History project. I am Jeff Baumgartner. I’ve been around the industry for a while, covering it for quite a few years, and during my coverage I have come across this young man, Marc Cohen, many times.
MARC COHEN: Well, thanks for calling me young, yes. Thanks for calling me young. (laughter)
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah, so I’m pleased — I’m honored to be joined by you today.
COHEN: Thanks, Jeff.
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah, you were named one of the Cable TV Pioneers 2019, so — and you pretty much covered the gamut, I think, when I was looking through it — in terms of working with cable operators, you founded one. We’re going to talk about programming and then being a key partner on the supplier side of the business. So, you know, that kind of covers a lot of it, so — but it’s good to see you, Marc.
COHEN: Thank you, Jeff. Always good to see you too.
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. So we’re going to cover a lot of ground today, but let’s start off with the beginning, right? A good place to start with your cable industry career. Talk about, like, the entry point for you, right? And did you always have your eyes on the cable industry from the beginning, or did you, like a lot of people, just kind of get into it through luck or coincidence or some fortuitous bounce along the way?
COHEN: Yeah, you know, I love to tell the story, because I didn’t have cable TV when I started. I remember I went up to Michigan State University to see a friend, and went to his apartment, and he had this box on his — wired to his TV. And it had slides on it, and it had — I don’t know, somewhere like 30-some channels.
BAUMGARTNER: Oh, to change your channel. I remember those things, yeah.
COHEN: And it was a wired remote, I think is what we called it, a wired remote set-top box. And it was the first — and I was just like, what is this? Because the Detroit marketplace — I grew up in Detroit, and we had so many off-air channels that we were one of the last areas, the metro Detroit area, to be built out with cable. So I went away to school, and it’s kind of an interesting story, I won’t get into it too much, but I failed out of Arizona State, which is a very hard thing to do, by the way.
BAUMGARTNER: Did you just party too hard, Marc?
COHEN: I think that was the case. I think the Dean of Students, who called me in and said something to the effect of, “We’re pretty sure you’ve never seen the inside of a classroom,” and I could not argue that fact.
BAUMGARTNER: Like, they got me. Yeah. Okay.
COHEN: And so it was time to go home. And I go back to the Detroit metro area, and my dad says, okay, Mr. Big Shot, you’re on your own. You can live here, but you’ve got to pay for everything. And, he said, and by the way, I don’t think you’re college material. Well, any time somebody says that to you, it’s a challenge, and whether I was or wasn’t, I was going to be college material.
BAUMGARTNER: You said, oh, yeah? Let me show you, Dad.
COHEN: Yeah. So I had a friend who had a job at Continental Cablevision in Southfield, Michigan, and they were looking for telemarketers, which was a great job to go to school because it was a 5:00 to 9:00 job. And I was selling the Disney Channel as a premium service at the time.
BAUMGARTNER: Just direct to the customer? Like, hey, this is Marc —
COHEN: Yeah. So basically I had a green bar printout, sat and dialed phone numbers and “Mr. So-and-So” and sold the Disney channel. And back then —
BAUMGARTNER: Was it a hard sell?
COHEN: No, it wasn’t. It was a really easy sell, because, you know, HBO and others were easy sells too, but anyone that had a family, it was hard for them to say no to the Disney Channel. So that went really well, and the GM at the time was Walter Maude, who’s still a good buddy of mine now, and the guy that actually hired me was Mel Hopkins. And Mel was the sales and marketing manager for Continental for the Southfield market, and they were just about to expand to West Bloomfield, where I was living at the time with my folks. And my first promotion was to door-to-door sales rep. And I said, I —
BAUMGARTNER: To what, sell service itself?
COHEN: Yeah, sell — in a new-build environment. So the town’s being wired, and I would go out ahead of the installers and I would say —
BAUMGARTNER: Oh. Like fish in a barrel.
COHEN: It really was. People would chase you down the street. But again, I still hadn’t had cable, so it wasn’t like I had it. And I remember saying to Walter Maude, who was the GM, you know, Mel wants me to do this, but I’m not sure I can. And he said, well, try it. If you can’t do it, you can stay a telemarketer.
COHEN: And that’s how I started, selling the Disney Channel and then door-to-door sales and a new build market for Continental.
BAUMGARTNER: So did that — obviously it worked out, right? You didn’t go back to telemarketing.
COHEN: That’s right. And I’ll tell you, I was never the top sales guy. I was a middle-of-the-pack guy, made very, very good money for a college student. Prime selling hours, again, door-to-door is 5:00 to 9:00, so you’re able to go to school and then work and then do your homework — but it was commission only. So every day I started working, I had zero dollars. And some days I had zero dollars at the end of the day and some days I had a lot more than that.
BAUMGARTNER: So it’s motivating.
COHEN: Yeah, absolutely it was. And that was okay with me.
BAUMGARTNER: Do you remember what your best day was?
COHEN: I think I had a thousand-dollar day. I don’t think I made much more than that.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. Not bad.
COHEN: But there were times when tuition was due, car payment was due, groceries were due —
BAUMGARTNER: Did you ever put that in your pitch? Like, “If I don’t sell this today –”
COHEN: You know what, I wish I did. I wish I did, honestly, yeah. I’m not sure it would have helped, but —
BAUMGARTNER: “– I may not eat.” No, yeah. (laughter)
COHEN: Exactly. But interesting story from there, Mel Hopkins gets a job with Comcast. And Comcast had bought the McLean-Hunter properties, which were a Canadian cable operator, in Pontiac and Waterford, Michigan. And he asked me to come along and be the sales and marketing supervisor. I went to Walter Maude again, and I said, “you know, I’ll tell you, Walter, this seems interesting, but I’m worried it may not work out.” And he said, “But you’re part of the Continental family. If it doesn’t work out, come back.” And at that moment in time I really understood what the cable industry is, that tight, close-knit society where we all work together, we all know each other and respect each other, and we’re all here to help one another.
BAUMGARTNER: Oh, okay, so it wasn’t, like, well —
COHEN: Sayonara. Yeah, no.
BAUMGARTNER: Adios, and good luck, and we’ll never see you again.
BAUMGARTNER: So they were okay. So that was kind of your — was that like the first time when you kind of looked at cable, like, not as just an industry that provides pay TV video, particularly in those days, but as something bigger and something maybe career-worthy for you? Or when did you kind of feel like, hey, this is where I’m going to be for a while?
COHEN: I’ll tell you that we got to Pontiac, and things were doing very well. McLean-Hunter was not really doing a lot in the marketplace, because, you know, a year before the sale, most operators were doing everything they can to get subscriber numbers up. The plant needed to be rebuilt, there was a lot of stuff going on. So we had a lot of success, because Comcast was throwing a lot of money at that system. This is when Comcast, most of the subscribers were in southeastern Michigan, and I think when I joined Comcast they had 500,000 subs. And, you know, Dan Aaron, Julian Brodsky, and Ralph Roberts would come to the system on a regular basis. So it goes on, and we’re doing well, and Mel Hopkins, who, again, still a dear friend, gets an offer to move to Indianapolis for the Comcast system there — a big promotion for him. And he calls me in the office, and he says, “Hey, Don and I want to talk to you.” And we’re talking and he tells me about his opportunity, and he said, “You know, but I need someone to take my place.” And my response was, “Well, yeah, we got a lot of great people on the team, who are you going to pick? I suggest so-and-so and so-and-so.” And they both looked at me and said, “Why do you think we’re talking to you? We want you to take the job.”
BAUMGARTNER: Oh, you thought they were, like, asking you for a recommendation?
COHEN: Just asking for — yes, that’s right, yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: “Hey, what do you think, Marc?” And, like, no. We’re saying you should do this. Yeah. Flattering, but.
COHEN: Yes, and that is when I said out loud, which I wish I didn’t now, but I did, I said, “Well, this is a job, not a career.” The minute it came out of my mouth —
BAUMGARTNER: What did they say to — like, “Well, Marc –”
COHEN: The minute it came out of my mouth, I was — said, “Well, gosh, it is their career, Marc, what a dumbass,” right? But they were kind and they were good friends —
BAUMGARTNER: Thanks a lot, Marc.
COHEN: — and they said, you know, we haven’t done a great job of explaining what the cable industry is. You’ve been here, you’ve done a great job here in the system, but let us tell you about the cable industry and where we believe it’s going. And from that moment on I never looked back. I found a career. You know, I was — we were a poor family from Detroit. We hardscrabbled, and I said in my Pioneer speech, my acceptance speech was — you know, I was lost, had nowhere to go, and the cable industry brought me in, treated me like family, allowed me to grow, make mistakes, learn from my mistakes, in an environment where that was okay. And that shaped my entire career in those early days.
BAUMGARTNER: And you may have already mentioned some people, but particularly in this portion of your career, who — and there’s probably multiple, but if you had to kind of zero in on it, who would you consider your mentor or person of influence for the industry that really helped springboard things and get you in the industry?
COHEN: Yeah, at that time it truly was Walter Maude, who was at Continental, Don Ivy, who was at Comcast, and Mel Hopkins. And Don unfortunately has passed away, but I’m still in contact with Mel and Walter on a regular basis, and they served as — those three people served as my reference probably for the first half of my career.
BAUMGARTNER: Interesting. And then along the way, you founded a cable operator. So what’s the story, right?
COHEN: So interesting story, yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: Like, I love this so much, I’m going to start my own.
COHEN: Yeah. Well, I wish it was that simple. But what ended up happening was, I, from Continental, went to Comcast. From Comcast, I went to Vision Cable in North Carolina. And I was the regional sales and marketing manager there, and I worked with a guy by the name of Steve Miron. And Steve Miron was our regional business manager. Well, I was working for a Newhouse company. I did not know who the Newhouses were and I didn’t know that Bob Miron was Steve’s dad. And even if I knew, I’m not sure I would have known at that time in my career what that meant. But Steve was — lived in the same apartment complex as I did, drove an older car, more banged-up car than I did. He was the first guy in and the last guy out of the office every day. And we became very good friends.
BAUMGARTNER: So work ethic, big-time.
COHEN: Absolutely right. And he wanted to learn the business. And we partnered together for a while there, and it was a great experience, and finally he started to tell me more about the business from his perspective. You know, who his dad was, why this is a great industry. And at the time, for Vision Cable — it was Vision Cable North Carolina — we were the only system making our numbers. And I’d love to say it was because I was doing a great job, but we were the only new build, because the Charlotte metro area was just exploding with new growth. And things went well there. And so I went from a system level to a regional level, and then I got an opportunity to move up to Washington, DC and work for Gus Hauser. And when I told Steve about that, he said, well, John Evans and Gus, dear friends of the family, we know them, you’ll be in good hands, don’t want to lose you, but that’s a great opportunity for you to work for now at a corporate level. And I went up to —
BAUMGARTNER: So again, go pursue an opportunity, spread your wings, not “what are you doing to us here?”
COHEN: Yeah, and Steve and I are friends to this day. And, you know, anything I ever needed, he always took my call. And talk about a great career — you know, Steve’s had an amazing career. His dad was an brilliant guy, his sister as well is brilliant. But I saw in Steve at that time something that I aspired to be as a young person in the business still growing. He really — his poise in tough environments and tough situations was something that I learned from. And then I got up and I didn’t work with Gus Hauser directly, but I did work with John Evans, and I started to really understand the business.
So your question of, how do you found a company — so after Southwestern Bell acquired Hauser, I did a couple of things. Worked for a small cable network because I always wanted to know that part of the business. Worked for a company that did just telephony and MDUs because I wanted to understand the telephony business. And I did — a friend of mine, because at Arlington Cable Partners, a Hauser Company, I was responsible for sales, and all of our rate of entry agreements to apartment communities and any hotel, motel, or bar or restaurant, commercial accounts. And so we would compete with this little private cable operator called Mid-Atlantic Communications. And John Lubetkin, who was the guy that — a partner there and the guy I would kind of go up against in all these deals for rate of entry agreements, we became good friends. You know, we won some, we lost some, they won some, lost some, but we became great friends. And when I didn’t have a job, John reached out and said “We’re looking for someone to run sales and marketing.” And I joined, and we grew that company and sold it to Comcast. And at the time, their CFO and I became very good friends, John Long, and after the sale of Mid-Atlantic, we together went and founded Longview Communications. And Longview Communications was a company that — well, the essence of that was, we went in with a private equity firm, we found a group of cable systems that were in bankruptcy, and we bought them out of bankruptcy, turned them around. And probably, though growing Mid-Atlantic and being one of the key people there to grow that company and have a successful exit with Comcast was a great success, and I enjoyed every moment of every day of that job. But at Longview, we had — through the bankruptcy process, I think, we turned off about 300 systems. We kept about 250. And for me the greatest —
BAUMGARTNER: You had to shut some of them down? Yeah.
COHEN: Well, they were just — we’re talking about, like, ten homes a mile kind of systems. I mean, it just did not make sense, and we had to restructure.
BAUMGARTNER: You needed some RDOF [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] money.
COHEN: Well, which we wish we had back then.
BAUMGARTNER: (laughter) And BEAD [Broadband Access and Deployment Program]
COHEN: Yeah, and so what we really wanted to do was bring high-speed Internet into these small rural communities. So we rebuilt everything to — from 330 to 750. We loaded up the channel lineups. We launched high-speed Internet — we were in the early days — hoping that it would bring people back to these towns, bring business back to these towns, so a young person didn’t go to college and then never come home again, because there was no opportunity and these towns were getting smaller, not larger. And I think for me, being able to help those communities provide free Internet access to libraries and schools, free computers and libraries for families that couldn’t afford high-speed so that their kids could do research and for their school projects was probably one of the things that I was most proud of early in my career.
BAUMGARTNER: Interesting. Now, when you were early into the days of high-speed Internet, assuming DOCSIS — I don’t know if it was DOCSIS at the time when you were doing it, or doing something proprietary, but —
COHEN: It was, yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: — so DOCSIS. Did you ever think at the time that, like, broadband was going to effectively become the cornerstone of the industry?
COHEN: Not a chance in the world, yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: It’s like, hey, this might be a nice little piece of business on the side, you know.
COHEN: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think any of us did, right? I think at the time, we thought that it was a — it was cool. Because what was out there at the time, right? You could email, you could go to some sites; there wasn’t a streaming product out there, per se. And I would be lying if I said I kind of saw where that was going to go, because I didn’t.
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. Because I think I was on dial-up for quite a while, even when I couldn’t wait for cable modem service to finally come to where I was. But then again, the applications were —
COHEN: Were limited at the time.
BAUMGARTNER: — yeah, just do things a little bit quicker than what I was doing.
COHEN: Right. Well, we had — the towns that we were in all had dial-up, but it was 28.8 speed. So it wasn’t even 56, right? So you know, you might as well just hit yourself in the head with a hammer while you’re waiting for things to download, it was that slow. And the communities that we went in to rebuild, they were worried about the local ISP. So we worked with the local ISP as a partner to help us get the word out and paid commissions, so that it was a local company and they’d stay in business and be our partners in that business. Because our goal was to help the communities, not to drive people out of the communities.
BAUMGARTNER: All right. And fast-forwarding to today, what you founded, who runs it now? Or is it a mix?
COHEN: Oh, so Mid-Atlantic we sold to Comcast, and then a mix of companies for Longview.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay, great. And then when I was looking through the career — I don’t know if there were other operators along the path or not, but I know you ended up at Vail and TBN at the time, so more video-focused. Maybe talk a little bit about the transition from operator to partner of the industry like that.
COHEN: Yeah, so I was a cable operator. I’m still a cable operator. I call myself a frustrated cable operator, because if I can’t be one, I get to work with them now. And so what happened was, in my brilliance, I thought at the time, we rebuilt these systems to 750 megahertz from 330, and that was a cut-and-respace upgrade and rebuild and, you know, very capital-intensive. And then at the tail end of that, not only was high-speed there, but HD came, and HD came big. And I’m out of bandwidth again. So now I have to go back and go to 860, right? And very quickly, after doing the initial build-outs, or rebuilds. So after we sold the company, I was reading an article about a company in the DC Metro that had an MPEG4 transport service. And I thought, well, that’s amazing, that’s what we could have used. And a gentleman at the time, Jon Romm, was their COO at Avail Media, and I sought him out, chatted with him, pursued him for probably four or five months, and I think he hired me just because I was being a pest, quite frankly.
BAUMGARTNER: Like, what do you want me to do, Marc? Yeah.
COHEN: And then when I got there, you know, I had the right contacts with the cable operators. I came in and brought some good relationships to the party, but I think at the end of the day, what I didn’t realize was that every set-top box out there was MPEG2. So for someone to go to MPEG4 at the time, they had to forklift all their CPE, and they weren’t going to do it.
BAUMGARTNER: That’s a tough sell, yeah.
COHEN: Very tough sell. And I can say that we did a lot. Now, on the telco side of the marketplace, it was easier, because they didn’t have the legacy set-top boxes.
BAUMGARTNER: Well, they were fresh into it, yeah.
COHEN: Exactly. Right. And so we did get some operators that took the transport because they wanted to — you know, the time of the digital change of the industry, they wanted more channels than their headends had. So they would take the MPEG4 signal from Avail and then they would turn around and down-convert it to MPEG2 and put it out. So, you know, it was a lesson learned that, yeah, this is great technology, but at the end of the day, you know, that great technology has a lot of things behind it that you have to do to make it successful in the marketplace.
BAUMGARTNER: Right. And in a way you kind of have to — there’s an evolutionary path, which I guess is my clumsy segue —
COHEN: To Evolution Digital. Yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. Whereas we sit here, today, you’re chief revenue officer. Yeah, so how did the opportunity — was it through your work at Avail TVN, and —
COHEN: Avail. It was. So I was responsible at Avail for sales and channel partner relationships. Evolution was a channel partner. And at the time, Evolution had a DVB-based solution and set-top box that they were putting out to compete with the Motorola, Scientific Atlanta —
BAUMGARTNER: In North America. Yeah.
COHEN: Yeah. Bringing it to North America. And that was a huge stretch.
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. (laughter)
COHEN: So I got to know John Egan again and heard his story as the founder of Arris, and his son and Brent Smith and Kyle Gielow, and they asked me to join the company early on. And I said, “I would love to, but I just joined Avail, and I haven’t done what I set out to do. And so it’s not time for me to think about leaving.” Avail Media bought TVN, became Avail TVN, it’s now Viewbiquity. And what ended up happening was, they brought in a lot of really smart people that knew a lot more about VOD, knew a lot more about MPEG4, and so I talked to the guys at Evolution and said, you know, if you’re interested I’m interested. Really starting to understand the business. And I’ll never forget, I had a meeting with Chris Egan and Brent Smith, and I said, “Guys, I want to be very clear: I’m a cable operator. I’ve never sold anything to a cable operator, really, and at the end of the day I’ve never sold a set-top box — I bought set-top boxes.” They both looked at me and said, “Eh, we’re pretty sure you’ll figure it out.” And my response was, “I’m pretty sure I won’t figure it out.”
BAUMGARTNER: (laughter) So they had more confidence in you than you had in yourself.
COHEN: Way more, way more. And so —
BAUMGARTNER: So you’re like, all right, I guess I can —
COHEN: Yeah, we’ll give it a try, right? And so they were kind and patient and worked with me and mentored me and gave me everything that I needed. And what I love about Evolution is, we’re a very small company. We’re privately held, we have a very small ownership group. And we have no debt. So I never had to pressure anyone to buy. And our motto is always, when we have the right product, we’ll make the sale. And a famous story that Jeff Ross and I joke about all the time, and Jeff Ross is the president of Armstrong, was that we’ve been friends forever but it took me nine years to make a sale there. And never once did we ever pressure them to buy a product.
BAUMGARTNER: You know, I’ve heard about cable having a long sales cycle — nine years? That’s up there.
COHEN: Oh. Yeah. Well, it was — Blue Ridge did the same thing. And you know what, I’ll tell you —
BAUMGARTNER: I mean, you got to be patient, you know.
COHEN: Well, you do. And you know, when we sold both — I think it was seven years for Blue Ridge and nine for Armstrong, you know, the teams there said — because we were selling DTAs [digital transport adapter] at the time.
BAUMGARTNER: That was when Evolution came on my radar, was the DTA days.
COHEN: That’s right.
BAUMGARTNER: And they were like, “Hey, we need to get rid of analog, we’ve got to go all digital, here’s these little zapper boxes.”
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah, that’s when they came up.
COHEN: And you know, what the customer said, especially Blue Ridge and Armstrong, was “The reason we’re going with you –” A DTA at the time was a DTA. It didn’t matter who you bought it from; it was the same device. It was all standards-based. And they said, “We’re buying from you because you treated us the same way whether we were buying or not buying. You still came out and met with us, you still treated us well.” And, you know, that’s what Evolution does. Our roadmap is based on our customer’s needs — we don’t come to the market saying we know best, and we don’t pressure anyone to buy. And we’ve been successful because of that.
BAUMGARTNER: Interesting. And now, we’re talking about DTAs, that was one path that was part of the evolution of the cable operator. These days, it’s more IP, it’s app-based, it’s streaming, and you guys are — Evolution’s right in the middle of that. So talk a little bit about the transition there for that part of the industry, and what the drivers were, and what the market reaction was. Has it been difficult to convince people, like, hey, we need to start thinking about this?
COHEN: Yeah. I think it’s not as hard to get people to agree that it’s something I need to do, because every video customer that’s on QAM today, linear QAM service, is taking bandwidth away from the high-margin broadband customers. So people get that. Evolution, and the way we got into it — just before I joined, we had a partnership with TiVo, where we built a portal for independent operators, and the smaller operators, they couldn’t afford at the time. It was a quarter of a million dollars to launch TiVo in your system. We built a portal where we would just charge a monthly fee and we could launch TiVo services through the portal, and the operator never had to put out a huge amount of money at the time, to launch the — at the time it was TiVo’s own DVRs.
BAUMGARTNER: With a CableCARD?
COHEN: Yeah, a CableCARD, exactly. So that’s how — so we started our partnership with TiVo at that time. During the DTA days, DTAs came with a now-and-next guide. They didn’t have a guide. And we knew Rovi was working on one, so we went to TiVo and we actually built and skinned for them what they call the TiVo Light Guide for DTAs. And that kind of started to cement our relationship and partnership with TiVo that we’ve had for, you know, almost 15 years now. And so that then led to a hybrid set-top box with TiVo UI, and today it has led to being TiVo’s largest partner when it comes to IPTV set-top boxes and their Android-based set-top boxes. And proudly I say that Evolution’s the largest provider of IP Android-based set-top boxes in both North and South America, primarily because of our relationship with TiVo.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. And what is the temperature right now with operators who maybe have not made a decision yet. They’re like, “Well, either we want to transition with IPTV, kind of migrate, support QAM until it dies off or whatever.” Or there are some operators that are just getting out of video and doing broadband. So, I guess, yeah, what is the temperature with those that are still on the fence or trying to make decisions, and what do you have to do to kind of convince them?
BAUMGARTNER: It’s like, “Hey, you know, staying in the video business is still a good thing right now.”
COHEN: So I think that, you know, most people have made the decision that they’re going to go IP or they’re going to get out of video and they’ll resell YouTube TV or something like that. For those that have made the decision, you know, those are operators that are the larger independent operators — people like to call them tier 2s. I don’t do the tiering thing. Our business is based on the independent operator community. And I think what — the decision is, what is the velocity of launching the new service? So they’ve made up their mind that they’re going to IP, but how fast are they going to go? And what we try to do is incent them to go faster, not slower, because again, every QAM video customer today is taking bandwidth away from their high-speed customers and the high-speed services where the margin is. We believe that video is still a good lead-in product.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. Now, if you had to predict it, how long is QAM going to be sticking around, or MPEG video for cable? I’m sure they’d all like to go all IP —
COHEN: In the next five years, I think it all goes away by then.
BAUMGARTNER: All right. And we’re in 2023 now, so.
COHEN: Yeah. And hopefully faster, but it’s probably five years or so in my opinion.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. So it’s on the horizon.
COHEN: Yeah, absolutely.
BAUMGARTNER: Great. And what do you think, then, is the future of the set-top box?
COHEN: Yeah, I knew that was coming. Well, you know —
BAUMGARTNER: Yeah. Because the smart TVs are out there, they can build in a lot of the functionality. We’re down to streaming devices that, you know, obviously they’re not the same as the old set-top box, but –You know, I was talking to Jeff Glahn earlier. We’ve heard predictions about the death of the set-top box for 20 years, but, you know, they’re still around.
COHEN: Yeah, and, look. In the old days, right, you’d buy a DVR for $350. You would then have an installer go and do an install of that device. They had a points system and you had 20 minutes — the installer had 20 minutes to install the device. And they didn’t have time to show the customer all the benefits of having that DVR device in their home, right, especially the What to Watch feature through TiVo UI. So I think what — the set-top box itself has gotten smaller and smaller, more highly functioning, and much lower-cost. The reason — the demise of the cable industry has been talked about since I got in the business.
BAUMGARTNER: Well, every time something new comes out —
COHEN: That’s right.
BAUMGARTNER: — it’s like, “That’s the one that’s going to kill it,” and here we are.
COHEN: And same with the set-top box. What we have found is that operators want to be able to have a managed service and have a back office functionality that our set-top boxes, and others that do what we do, give the operator. So if, in fact, you say, “It’s a bring-your-own-device-only environment,” your CSR has to be able to talk intelligently about FireStick and, you know, go on and on– and at the same time you have no visibility in the home, and what might be going wrong with the service. And if I’m a consumer, I don’t care what device I have, if I’m buying a service from you, I want you to be able to fix that service, and that’s why I think that the IP set-top box with a back office will continue to be around for a while.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. Meanwhile, broadband is a huge focus for the industry, it has been for quite a while. But I think we all understand that broadband is kind of the central player now —
BAUMGARTNER: — for operators. So — but also this is a focus for Evolution Digital as well.
COHEN: It is.
BAUMGARTNER: And did that come from kind of recognizing that that was the direction that the businesses you’re serving were going to go into, so we’d better make sure it’s part of our repertoire?
COHEN: Yeah, so there are a couple of things. One, we said to ourselves, if in fact we’re providing a wireless set-top box in a home, we really should make sure that the in-home network quality is such that we — you know, there’s good signal to those devices. So we started looking at managed WiFi services, and we looked at everyone, from Plume and Arrow and, you know, you name it. And we decided that Plume was the partner for us, just like we decided that TiVo was the partner for us on the set-top box side. And at the same time, we see, though it’s five years of QAM, our current set-top box horizon, let’s call it, a five-year horizon for our current WiFi-6 model device, before we start going into more of a stick device and they get smaller and less expensive, we had a runway if we wanted to stay in business where we had to do something. So we decided that we were going to focus on the WiFi side of the business to make sure that the in-home network, the operator could offer quality of service level to make sure that the bandwidth in the home and the throughput in the home provided the right service so the video product would be shown properly, and we weren’t getting a bunch of phone calls from the operator saying our boxes had some issues.
BAUMGARTNER: Right, because definitely the network that the operator is expected to support is not just to the home but throughout the home.
BAUMGARTNER: And there are some retail things out there, but it feels like the operators want more of a role.
COHEN: Well, I think we learned a lesson as an industry, right? So I’m on the road 46 weeks out of the year, and I love it. Not a lot of people can do what I do in the way I do it —
COHEN: Yes, still, today.
COHEN: So two, three days a week every– for 46 weeks a year I’m out visiting. Because again, our road map is based on our partners’ needs, not what I think is best. And when I tell people what I do, their response is always, “Well, I hate my cable company.” And I ask why, and they say, you know, “My broadband’s terrible.” So what I tell people is, “I promise you that the signal — the service and throughput that you’re being sold at the side of the home is right.” But when we as operators let you, Mr. Consumer, go to Staples and buy a $40 router for your WiFi network in the home, there’s no way to provide the quality of service to make sure that home is getting the throughput. So I think that operators today have decided you need managed WiFi, whatever flavor that is, and you need devices put in the home that you are sure are going to provide the level of service that you’re selling to the customer. And I think that has changed the business. You know, we played the speed game in the industry for a very long time, right? So we said, hey, upgrade your speed for four dollars or five dollars more a month, or free. Well, the end user that’s not a heavy user, it’s very hard for them to understand what that speed gives them, but with Plume or Arrow or others out there, your mobile app, you can control the network, you can see where the trouble is, you can move devices from one pod to another, and you can kind of sense and feel and see that throughput. So it lets the consumer be more in control of that home network as well.
BAUMGARTNER: And they also have more visibility for the first time that they probably wouldn’t have.
COHEN: That’s right. Yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay, great. And as we get toward the end here, I wanted to kind of open it up for kind of both looking forward but also reflection, right?
BAUMGARTNER: So maybe the crystal ball question, right, is, where do you think the industry’s going to be ten years from now? And maybe you’re going to be viewing it from a beach somewhere, you know, drinking a mai tai or something, but where do you think it’s going to be?
COHEN: Yeah. You know, I love when people say that the demise of cable and video — there’s more video being consumed today than ever before, in so many more sources. So I believe that that’s going to continue. I think that we’re going to get more and more ways to view, and I think that the industry will continue to adapt like it has. You know, we’re fortunate on the TiVo platform that you can have deep — you can search recommendation and deep linking to all of the OTT services. And so I think that will become, that will be more and more, and I think the industry will continue to provide the bandwidth to the home and the interfaces necessary, whether it’s the whole-home app to control the app off of the main TV in the home, or whatever it may be to make us relevant throughout the next, you know, 50-plus years.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. And then — there are a lot of moments in your career, but if you had to pinpoint it, what’s the proudest one?
COHEN: Well, so two things. I think the proudest thing for me is that I never forgot what it was like to be an entry-level, lowest-level employee at a cable company and in an industry, and fought my way to the top. And I’ve always understood what it means to be a front-line employee, and I work for my employees. And I work for my partner companies, and I — they’re — you know, other people call them customers, I call them our partner companies. So that’s who I work for, and I think I do that primarily because of where I started, and I have never forgotten that. So my proudest accomplishment is I’ve never forgotten what it was like to fight my way up, and what it means to provide good service to your partners and good support to your coworkers in any company that you’re working with.
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. You have people who’ve been with the company, you have people who come in, so, I mean, with somebody coming into the industry or even to your company, what would be — what kind of wisdom would you impart to them if they’re interested about this industry? Because a lot of people don’t know, coming in, the history of the industry and how it kind of welcomed you in. You know, they just look at it as another industry, as anything else.
COHEN: Right. And look, I’d love to believe that lots of industries do what we do, but I haven’t seen it. We’re a very tight-knit community. There’s no one in the business that I can meet for the first time and we don’t know the same people. And what I do is, I try to tell young people, whether it’s through the Cable Center Intrapreneurship program or new entries in the market, I try to tell them the story from my point of view and what it meant to me. And then I love when I get an email or a phone call or a hallway conversation after someone’s gone to their first event, whether it’s the NCTC, TIS, or WICT or SCTE events and say, “Wow, I heard what you were saying, but it wasn’t until I got out there that I really understood what this family feel means in the what we’ve always referred to as the cable TV industry.”
BAUMGARTNER: Okay. Well, great. Well, Marc, I think that’s where we’re going to leave it for today.
COHEN: All right.
BAUMGARTNER: I realize this is an oral history, but you’ve still got a lot of history ahead for you in this industry, but thanks again for sharing yours with us today.
COHEN: Yeah. Well, Jeff, I can tell you this: that I appreciate it, I appreciate being able to do this, but I really appreciated that it was you. (clears throat) Excuse me.
BAUMGARTNER: Now you’re getting choked up, I know.
COHEN: That we could do it together. Yeah, well, I’m an emotional guy. But thank you, Jeff, I really appreciate it.
BAUMGARTNER: Oh, yeah, you bet. And one thing, you know, we did wear the right shoes, apparently.
COHEN: Yes, we have the matching shoes.
BAUMGARTNER: We’re wearing the matching shoes today, which is —
COHEN: Totally —
BAUMGARTNER: — these are now the official oral history shoes.
COHEN: Totally a coincidence, yeah.
BAUMGARTNER: Thanks, Marc.
COHEN: Thank you, Jeff.