Interview Date: Tuesday October 15, 2002
Interview Location: Atlanta, GA USA
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Collection: Hauser Collection
KELLER: This is the oral history of Henry W. Harris, former president of Cox Cablevision in Atlanta, and president and general manager and CEO of Metrovision, which was a joint venture with – I believe it was a joint venture, wasn’t it? – with the Newhouse newspaper people out of New York. We are in Atlanta, Georgia in Henry’s home. The date is October 15, 2002. Henry, to get started, tell us a little bit about your background before getting into cable.
HARRIS: I was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduated in 1960, I went in the Marine Corps for three years.
KELLER: As an officer?
HARRIS: As an officer. I went through the ROTC program at Chapel Hill, came back to Chapel Hill in 1964, got my MBA, and I guess because my father was a banker, I didn’t know what else to do. I came to Atlanta with the Trust Company of Georgia, worked for them for about a year and a half before having an interview with Cox Cable at the time for a business manager’s job in Cox Cable, and joined Cox at that point in time.
KELLER: As business manager?
HARRIS: As business manager.
KELLER: Who was heading up the organization then?
HARRIS: Well, Leonard Reinsch was the president of Cox at the time, and I was mainly interested during the interview process, actually Cliff Curtland, who was the financial vice-president at the time, took me to a room they had in a little building behind WSB television, and Leonard Reinsch had had the foresight to believe that he could take the independent television stations from New York and from Chicago and bring them all the way to Atlanta, that that would make cable viable in many, many cities around the route.
KELLER: That’s the independents out of New York…
HARRIS: New York and Chicago, and what the room was was a map room. They had engineered the microwave system to run across the top of the United States just south of the Great Lakes running from Chicago to New York, and then came south through Columbus, Ohio and Dayton, Ohio, all the way down to Atlanta, and it was Leonard’s thought that if you could have four or five independent television stations that would give you product to sell on cable.
KELLER: Now there was an independent in Atlanta at the time, wasn’t there?
HARRIS: There was no independent here in Atlanta at the time. Sure enough, he was right. But it just so happened my first day at Cox was April 1, 1979, the same day the FCC published a Report & Order which essentially froze all growth in the cable industry for the next three years. So the pet name of that microwave project was the golden T bomb because it looked like a big T and it effectively died April the 1st as I joined the company, and it was one of the projects that was uppermost in my mind in accepting the job because I found it so intriguing.
KELLER: To build the microwave system and linking it?
HARRIS: Yeah, I was going to be the business manager, but I didn’t know anything about microwave. Anyway, the project sounded so intriguing and I felt so strongly that yes indeed that would cause cable systems to have product to sell.
KELLER: Had you even heard of cable systems at that time?
HARRIS: No, I didn’t know a thing about cable TV.
KELLER: Had your bank ever invested or loaned money to the industry?
HARRIS: No, actually, a friend of mine who was at the bank earlier had taken a job at Cox maybe a year earlier, and he came back simply because we knew each other and that’s how I heard of the job being open.
KELLER: But you didn’t know anything about cable, never heard of it?
HARRIS: Never heard of it. I remember many times in the early days flying on airplanes, as I’m sure you remember, Jim, and you say what do you do? I’m in cable television. What’s that?!
KELLER: It’s always been a fascination in my mind that a very, very and ultra-conservative newspaper company such as Cox was, and is today, would want to get into number one, broadcasting, and number two, cable.
HARRIS: Well, I can’t talk about broadcasting because they were in broadcasting for many years before I joined them in cable, but they were in cable for one reason and that was Leonard Reinsch. He was a visionary and he saw, as a broadcaster, that was his history, as a broadcaster he saw cable as an opportunity not a threat, which other broadcasters saw it as a threat. He was very, very positive on cable, as I just said, the microwave venture. I don’t think many people know that even existed, and I’m sure Cox still owns some farmland in Ohio and Indiana that hasn’t gotten back to the price they paid for it 30 years ago, 40 years ago.
KELLER: So then you went with Cox, and then what happened and how did you develop the company?
HARRIS: Well, remember, the day I went they froze all growth, so the first couple of years there I must have thought about leaving 100 times, and I never did because I believed that cable was going to get its opportunity one day and so I stayed, but the first two years I was with Cox were totally boring years. They had maybe 60,000 cable customers. They had the biggest cable operation in the country in San Diego, and that was somewhat fun because when the FCC put the Report & Order they gave a certain amount of time that you could continue construction. If my memory serves me correctly, it was a date in August of 1966, so you had four months there. We owned a piece of San Diego at the time. It just started building like crazy, throwing cable up everywhere to try to get as much cable up as possible before the deadline.
KELLER: Cox had a television station in San Diego, didn’t they?
HARRIS: They did not.
KELLER: They did not. What got them into San Diego?
HARRIS: We got involved with Lee Druckman, who started San Diego and Bakersfield and was building them out. When the Report & Order came out, Lee needed a lot of money fast to build, and so he approached Cox and Cox backed him with the money in return for a piece of ownership. Subsequently, about maybe four months after I was with Cox, Cox bought the remainder of San Diego for around 11 million dollars. It was at that time the largest cable system in the United States with about 25,000 customers.
KELLER: And the largest city that cable had built at that time.
HARRIS: Yes, and of course what made San Diego viable were the four LA independent stations, being able to pick’em.
KELLER: And then that got involved in one massive lawsuit, the Southwestern Case, is that correct?
KELLER: Could you tell us a little bit about that?
HARRIS: Well, the Southwestern Case, Southwestern was not our system. That was Time Warner’s system. So I was not involved in that.
KELLER: But you benefited by the results of that case, though, ultimately, didn’t you?
HARRIS: Yes, we did. There was a congressman from San Diego, Lionel Van Deerlin, who was very, very helpful in us taking our plea to the FCC, and ultimately we got relief, but it was many years. Storer had a television station there, and I remember one of the ways that we think we got Storer to not be so anti-cable was Cliff Curtland and I took two of the Storer executives to Augusta National to play golf.
KELLER: Now, for those that may not be aware, the Southwestern Case is a landmark case in the cable industry initiated by one of the television stations in San Diego owned by a guy by the name of Augie Meyers.
HARRIS: Augie Meyer, yep.
KELLER: Who wanted to prohibit bringing the LA independents into San Diego? He won the suit, I think, originally, did he not?
HARRIS: I think he did.
KELLER: And then I think it was overturned later on after the FCC acted. Was that correct?
HARRIS: That’s my recollection, yes.
KELLER: That’s how I thought of it, too. Lee would know more about it, and I would suggest to anyone viewing this that they may want to look at the oral history of Lee Druckman because we did go into a rather substantial discussion of the Southwestern Case.
HARRIS: Well, much of that case was before Cox had an interest in San Diego.
KELLER: Yes. So you had two systems that were being built then in San Diego.
KELLER: ATC was not, as I recall – that was American Television and Communications Corporation – had bought into, well, no, they got it from Time, Inc., is that correct?
HARRIS: Yes. Time, Inc., but it was maybe late ’60s is when they bought. They actually bought all of Time’s cable systems at that point in time, ATC did. And subsequently Time Warner bought ATC.
KELLER: That’s correct. I was a part of that in those days, and we operated in the Mission area, primarily, in San Diego, and you were up north of us in the Cox area.
HARRIS: We were south, you were north.
KELLER: That’s right. I’m turned around, that’s right. You were down in La Jolla.
HARRIS: In fact, I remember distinctly, I think ATC paid roughly 11 million dollars for all of Time Warner’s cable systems, and I cannot elaborate what was there besides San Diego, but I distinctly remember calling Monty Rifkin and offering him 11 million for just the north part of San Diego. It was much more valuable to us as it was, but he declined to sell and continued to operate.
KELLER: And you then began hiring one of the most proficient staffs in the business, as I recall.
HARRIS: We had a good staff, very good.
KELLER: How did you come upon these fellas?
HARRIS: Various. Lew Davenport, who was with us for many years came when Cox acquired the systems in Astoria, Oregon and Aberdeen, Washington, and the Dells, Oregon, so he came by acquisition. Bill Pitney, who was operating vice-president of Cox Cable was the manager of the Findlay, Ohio system, and that’s how he came with Cox.
KELLER: When you acquired the system, is that right?
HARRIS: We actually got the franchise and were building Findlay. When I got to Cox, Findlay had probably been open for business maybe six months. So it was still in the original opening marketing campaign, and still was under construction.
KELLER: And then some of the other people – Tim Foreman?
HARRIS: Tim Foreman actually was with the accounting department in Cox, and just came over to cable. He was one of the staff accountants with Cox Broadcasting. Craig Maher. We had Dick Hickman, who ultimately was a vice-president of engineering of Cox, was already there when I got there.
KELLER: He came from Jerrold, too, didn’t he?
HARRIS: Dick came from systems in West Virginia, and he had been a chief technician at some of the largest systems in West Virginia.
KELLER: Did he work for Bill Adler?
HARRIS: I don’t think so.
KELLER: Tom Dowden was there, you brought him in.
HARRIS: Tom was already there. Tom preceded me at Cox Cable. He was a journalism graduate at the University of Georgia, and he came to Cox principally to do franchising, and then when they froze the growth of the business there wasn’t much franchising to be done. Actually, Tom and I shared an office the first couple weeks I was with Cox.
KELLER: Then what did you do the first couple years, or how did you maintain Cox’s interest in staying in the business?
HARRIS: Well, it was tough because there wasn’t a lot going on. As business manager I just had business responsibility for the cable systems. I can recall in my first two weeks at Cox, the Findlay, Ohio system was a joint venture between Cox and a company called Continental Cable that was just getting started, and there was a buy/sell agreement among the 50/50 partners for the Findlay, Ohio system, and it was triggered by Bud Hostetter. So Cliff Curtland, who was the financial vice-president of Cox Broadcasting gave me as one of my first assignments the job of trying to put a value on the cable system. I’d been with Cox two weeks, didn’t know a cable system from the Coca-Cola truck, but I looked at trades and magazines and things, what they were selling for, and I told Cliff we ought to ask $325 a customer.
KELLER: And where did you get that number? That’s what systems were selling for at that time?
HARRIS: Yes, it was. 300 was a good rule of thumb at the time. These were 12-channel systems. I remember being in Cliff’s office when he called Bud Hostetter and they exchanged pleasantries, and since Continental had triggered a buy/sell agreement, Cox had the right to set the price and then Continental said whether they were going to buy or sell at that price. So Cliff was going with the figure of $325 a customer, and I saw his face get a little pale. I knew at the other end of the phone the guy said we’re buying, and I first met Bud Hostetter when he came to pick up the journal ledger books for the Findlay, Ohio cable system.
KELLER: A point of information, Bud Hostetter is now referred to as Amos Hostetter. The first billion dollars he went to Amos.
HARRIS: That’s right. Who uses Bud when you’ve got a billion?
KELLER: I guess so. Very few people remain who think of him as Bud as we do. I understand that he doesn’t really like that anymore. With a billion dollars he can do anything he wants. How did you build Cox then after the freeze was taken off? There was still a considerable amount of regulation and many, many restrictions on importing distant signals. What markets did you go after, and how did you go after them?
HARRIS: Well, in the early ’70s I guess the first market I remember most was the Davenport, Iowa-Moline, Illinois areas.
HARRIS: Tri-cities, but there were four franchises involved. It was Bettendorf and East Moline so we called it quad-cities even though it was known as the tri-city area, and we operated as Quad-Cities Cable, and we got the franchise in all four, fortunately, and you had to run a referendum in Iowa to confirm the franchise. Of course, television stations would run advertisements saying cable was going to shut the free signal out of the air, and oh, it was just awful. But somehow we won those elections. The television station was owned by a chiropractor, Dr. David Palmer.
KELLER: Palmer, right, of Palmer Broadcasting.
HARRIS: And I remember calling Dr. David Palmer, just cold call, introduced myself, went into his offices in Davenport, Iowa, and simply said cable’s going to come to Davenport, Iowa sooner or later. Wouldn’t you rather have a fellow broadcaster operating it here? Dr. Palmer was very gracious and he did not significantly oppose the election and we subsequently won in both the cable systems.
KELLER: You used that argument more than once.
HARRIS: I did use that argument more than once.
KELLER: I think I’ve heard it.
HARRIS: With many of the broadcasters. Quad-Cities, Davenport-Moline, was a very, very successful cable system, the reason being we got the Chicago WGN independent in there, it was a principle thing we had to sell in the early ’70s.
KELLER: I’m trying to think also… did you ever partner with a local television station?
HARRIS: If we did, I don’t recall it.
KELLER: Okay, I can’t recall whether you did or not. Somehow I’ve got it in the back of my mind that you may have at one point or another in some city partnered with a broadcaster.
HARRIS: I don’t recall it if we did.
KELLER: How about with a newspaper?
HARRIS: We did partner with some newspapers in various things. More often we’d form some kind of local group of partners that were principally the people we thought were influential with city council.
KELLER: We always did that.
HARRIS: And we always did that in a lot of location. In the early ’70s as we came out of the freeze, everybody was franchising and Cox and American Television and Communications, as you well know, Jim, agreed to merge. The merger was blocked by the Justice Department.
KELLER: Let’s go into that, how that developed and some of the machinations that developed in the combination of the two companies. That’s an interesting story.
HARRIS: Well, obviously, I think the deal was actually done at the board of directors level. By this time…
KELLER: Royal Little and…?
HARRIS: Yeah, Cox Cable was a public company, went public in 1968, I became president in 1969, and I think Royal Little was involved with American Television.
KELLER: He was the chairman.
HARRIS: We had an independent board, largely still dominated by Cox Broadcasting executives but had outside directors, and the merger, I think, was principally instigated by Royal Little, but they’d agreed to merge and it was shortly after the agreement was reached that the Justice Department sued to block us. As I recall, we were the second and third largest cable operators. I believe TelePrompTer was the largest at the time.
KELLER: I think it was, yes.
HARRIS: And together between us we probably wouldn’t have had half a million subscribers.
KELLER: That’s as I recall, that we would not have. It was incredible that the Justice Department would step in and said it was going to be a monopoly if the two combined.
HARRIS: Absolutely, cable was so small. And I can recall Monty Rifkin, who was president of ATC at the time, and I, and our respective attorneys went into the Justice Department to talk to their lawyers about it, and the opening line from the U.S. Attorney was why do you two guys want to merge? Why doesn’t one of you sell to General Electric or somebody? And I remember that line because the reason I left Cox at the end of the ’70s was because Cox was to be acquired by General Electric, and the merger never did go through.
KELLER: But what’s interesting to me in listening to that story is that here two small, two small companies, Cox Cable and ATC, relatively small companies…
HARRIS: Relatively small, yeah!
KELLER: But big in the cable industry, and here they were talking about a monstrous company buying out one or both of these small companies.
HARRIS: Absolutely. To show you how small we were in those days, these numbers won’t mean anything in today’s market, but when Cox Cable went public and sold with 20% of its shares to the public, the entire proceeds of the offering were 7 ½ million dollars.
KELLER: How many subscribers did you have then?
HARRIS: Maybe 60,000. Then we bought Fred Lieberman’s company and it went to about 175,000 customers.
KELLER: Which systems were those?
HARRIS: They were systems up in Vermont – Burlington, Montpelier, and then the biggest system was Macon, Georgia and Warner-Robbins, which are two communities in central Georgia very close together, and we bought those systems, I believe, in 1969.
KELLER: Were those your first acquisitions, or were the western systems…?
HARRIS: They were the first acquisitions after we were a public company, and Fred Lieberman took stock with the right of one free registration, and about a year later we registered the stock and he sold most of his systems.
KELLER: Had you already acquired the systems on the west coast up in Oregon and Washington?
HARRIS: They were the first systems that Cox acquired. They were the initial acquisition that Cox made to get into cable.
KELLER: Of course, Astoria is considered by many to be the first cable system in the country.
HARRIS: Birthplace, that’s right. I remember…
KELLER: I think that’s been contested, but who cares.
HARRIS: I remember going out there in the mid-70s, I think it was, to put a plaque on top of a hill. I don’t even remember the name of the hill, but the fellow that supposedly started cable TV, and I cannot remember his name…
KELLER: Parsons, Ed Parsons.
HARRIS: He lived in Alaska at the time and was 80 years old, and flew his own plane from Alaska to Astoria, Oregon to attend the ceremony, and I remember meeting the gentleman.
KELLER: And you bought Astoria and Aberdeen and the Dells, right?
HARRIS: The Dells, Seaside, and Long Beach. There were five systems.
KELLER: And that’s when you acquired Lew Davenport, too. He came with those systems.
HARRIS: Lew Davenport, exactly.
KELLER: Lew was on the management side, wasn’t he, of the company?
HARRIS: He was. He was in charge of all five of those systems in Oregon for a lot of years, and in the mid-70s I brought Lew to Atlanta as a senior operating vice-president, and he lived in Atlanta for many, many years. He’s moved back to… I believe he lives in the state of Washington now.
KELLER: I think he does.
HARRIS: I saw Lew some months ago. He just turned 80 years old.
KELLER: It’s hard to think of those guys in those terms. Well, it’s hard to think of us in the years we are either. I guess when you’re in a business 30 or 40 years you have to be more than 50 years old.
HARRIS: Well, the merger of Cox and ATC fell apart because as time went on and the Justice kept blocking us we were trying to do franchising, and it was very difficult to stand up – “Who are you? Who are we dealing with?” and many times we would be competing applicants for the same franchise and would fight each other in city hall even though ultimately we were supposed to merge. So our respective board of directors wanted to get together, we had an outing down in ATC’s brand new Orlando system. And I remember all of us came in on different flights, but I remember being picked up at the airport by a young guy that was just hired to do the marketing for Orlando’s system. His name was Joe Collins. He seemed to do quite well in the cable business.
KELLER: He was the only one that survived the Orlando operation.
HARRIS: He survived to do quite well.
KELLER: Yes, yes. It ate up people and money for an awful long time.
HARRIS: Yeah, I know it did.
KELLER: It’s interesting, you will recall that we had a joint management meeting prior to the merger up in Vail, Colorado.
HARRIS: I do remember.
KELLER: With our counterparts at that time, and I remember sitting around and discussing what we were going to call the company. Do you recall that?
HARRIS: Yeah, I do.
KELLER: And finally we determined that Cox American was better than the other way around.
HARRIS: Other way around, absolutely. I remember that. They were difficult times. I remember I would make visits to Rifkin to talk about the organization if and when we got together, and of course we each had our own respective guys. They had a finance guy that subsequently went to Alabama, I believe. I don’t recall his name. Who was the finance guy I’m trying to think of at ATC?
KELLER: Tom Benning, was he there?
HARRIS: Nope, it’s not Tom. It was before him…
KELLER: A young fellow? I can’t remember his name.
HARRIS: I can’t recall, but anyway, we each had a finance guy, we each had a franchising guy, he had Bruce Lovett. So they were very, very difficult discussions about who was going to have a job because we had a duplicate position everywhere. It was going to be, had we tried to put it together, it was going to be a difficult fit. Another thing, Atlanta or Denver? Where were we going to live? We never got over that one.
KELLER: As I recall, you were going to be president and Monty was going to be chairman, or was it the other way around?
HARRIS: That’s correct. No, that’s correct. It just wasn’t going to work and the Justice Department delaying it just made it… but I don’t think it ever would have worked simply because there was a lot competitiveness. There was a lot of Denver, a lot of Atlanta. The personalities involved were… I can remember some very, very difficult trips to Denver, and my only pleasant recollection of those visits was June Travis, who was Monty’s secretary, and a delightful lady as anybody that’s been around the cable business knows.
KELLER: Tell me about the part that she played in the merger discussions.
HARRIS: Well, the discussions were sometimes heated and always difficult. Monty Rifkin can be a very stubborn guy. Once he gets his mind set there’s very little right or left into it. June, I think, felt for me. I’d come out there and we’d sit in the office all day and make very little progress one way or the other, and June was just a delight as she always is. I kind of looked to June for a smile when I went to Denver.
KELLER: You said that she was the one that kind of soothed your temper when you were talking with Monty.
HARRIS: Yeah, she was. I’d get a little hot, and Monty would get a little hot, but June always had some soft words for both of us, a delightful lady.
KELLER: And she went on to become president of the NCTA, and then became president of Rifkin. Or, Rifkin first.
HARRIS: Rifkin first, and then the NCTA.
KELLER: She’s a very able person. Then you stayed with Cox for what? Ten years?
HARRIS: Well, I went in ’66 and I left in ’69.
KELLER: Oh, only three years!
HARRIS: I meant ’79.
KELLER: Oh, ’79. Thirteen years.
HARRIS: Thirteen years, yeah, and I wouldn’t have left Cox except in the late ’70s, maybe it was like late ’78, GE was going to acquire all of Cox Broadcasting.
KELLER: Including the cable systems?
HARRIS: Including the cable. At this point in time, Cox Cable had gone public. In the mid-70s, Cox Broadcasting bought back the public stock, took it back private again, so in the late ’70s Cox Cable was simply part of Cox Broadcasting. There was no public stock available.
KELLER: But it wasn’t a separate company then?
HARRIS: Well, it was a separate company, but a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cox Broadcasting, and GE was going to acquire Cox. A fellow by the name of Jack Welch was a senior vice-president of GE doing the acquisition. I think one of my motivating reasons for leaving Cox… Jack came down for a visit, and Cliff Curtland and I were playing golf with Jack Welch and I happened to be in the cart with him, and I asked Jack Welch where would Cox Broadcasting fit on GE’s organizational chart, and he said, oh no, they’re not big enough. They wouldn’t show up on GE’s organizational chart, they’d be on a sector chart. And I said, whoa, this is a big mama we’re getting ready to merge with here, and I said I think I’d like to do something a little bit smaller. So, my principle attorney was Bill Sims with Deloice and Albertson, and I let Bill know of my desire to maybe start my own company. Bill was also counsel to the Newhouse family out of New York, their FCC counsel, and Bill knew of their interest of trying to back some people that could get some franchises. So Bill was instrumental in setting up a lunch between myself and the two Newhouse brothers, Donald and Cy, and I went to New York and had lunch with them and told them what I wanted to do, and they said well, we might be interested in backing you financially, and they asked me to go back and to write out the terms and conditions of whatever offer I thought.
KELLER: You were still with Cox.
HARRIS: I’m still with Cox, and nobody knows I’m thinking about leaving. We’re still hot and heavy at that point in time. We were heavily involved in the Oklahoma City franchise. All of this was going on… We were involved in the Fort Wayne franchise, all of this was going on while I was talking to the Newhouses. So I came back and I hadn’t even talked to any of my people about it. I didn’t want my secretary to know about it. She usually knew everything I did. So I ended up writing out on a yellow pad the terms and conditions of an offer I thought was fair for the Newhouses, and fair for myself and whoever else got involved in the company. So I mailed it to them and kept a copy, and about two days after I mailed it their attorney, Charles Sabin, called me on the phone, and he simply said, yes, we’ll do it. Well, I choked. I didn’t know whether I wanted to leave Cox or not. I just panicked. The first thing I did was hire a lawyer knowing he could get this deal on paper. He could take a while and I could try to decide. During that interim period of time while we were doing the final negotiations I talked to four of my key guys to go with me.
KELLER: So you decimated the executive staff of Cox Cable.
HARRIS: Well, yes we did. Yes, we did. We took a lot of them. I took Tim Foreman, Dick Hickman, the chief engineer with me, and Craig Maher, who did a lot of the franchising with us. We all left together, and Cliff Curtland, who was president of Cox Broadcasting at the time was not happy, didn’t know what to do with cable and asked GE for some help, and so GE sent a fellow down to take my place by the name of Bob Wright. Bob was president of Cox Cable for a number of years, and then subsequently when the GE/Cox merger never went through, at an important time Bob Wright went back to General Electric, and now of course is the president of NBC television.
KELLER: Why didn’t the merger go through with GE?
HARRIS: Well, part of it was the FCC and the transfer of the television licenses, and it just took time. It was back in the days when a lot of people protested the transfer of licenses and it just went on and on and on, so that by the time it looked like approval was going to be gotten, almost two years had gone by. The deal was on a fixed price for Cox shares. It sticks in my mind that it was $75 a share. Cox, probably rightfully so, felt like their asset had appreciated during that interim period of time, and evidently…
KELLER: There was not an adjustment clause in the contract?
HARRIS: I honestly don’t know because I’m gone by this time. I’m no longer with Cox. I had left. But for whatever reason the merger didn’t go through, and had I known that I would have never left Cox, but I thought the merger was going through, so I started my company, Metrovision.
KELLER: Which was very, very fortunate for you.
HARRIS: Yes, it was very fortunately for me.
KELLER: In more ways than one.
HARRIS: In more ways than one.
KELLER: Tell me about how you got Metrovision going.
HARRIS: Well, the Newhouses backed us financially, and our principle objective was to do franchising, and in the late ’70s, early ’80s, we were now franchising a lot of the major cities because we had ESPN, we had HBO, we had a smattering of satellite services that were bringing life to cable systems. So that was our principle, but some of the hurdles we had to overcome is there were a lot of consultants that were hired by cities to advise them.
KELLER: Cable Television Information Center.
HARRIS: There were forms you had to fill out, the Cable Television Information Center, and a lot were rightfully to show financial capability. Well, the Newhouses are very, very private people; they do not talk about their finances, and this was going to be very difficult for us to do franchising with no financial statements. So when we get to the middle of the road, we got a letter from Chemical Bank that in essence said the Newhouses are good for anything, anytime, any price.
KELLER: And any amount.
HARRIS: And any amount. And that’s what we used in our franchising documents as proof of financial capability, and it got us through. The principle franchising we got done was within the suburbs of Chicago and Detroit, Michigan, and in both of those suburbs we ended up with cable systems… Chicago was a little over 100,000, Detroit was about 90,000.
KELLER: Can you recall the names of those suburbs?
HARRIS: Well, in Detroit it was Lavonia, Farmington, Farmington Hills, Redford, Michigan.
KELLER: Very high-end suburbs.
HARRIS: Yes, very high-end suburbs. And in Chicago we had just a ton of small franchises. Palos Hills, lots of little franchises, no really big, significant…
KELLER: But they were adjacent, weren’t they?
HARRIS: They were not totally adjacent, and we had some problems in developing these cable systems because Chicago had probably, I want to say eight operators that were active in the suburbs, and we ended up each having to run cable through the other’s territory and there were a lot of negotiations that had to go on to get permission. If I wanted to cut my cable system here with a cable system here, and there was one in the middle that I didn’t have, we had to run through it.
KELLER: You had telephone company problems then, too, didn’t you?
HARRIS: We did indeed. We did indeed. We had to get the pole permits from the cable franchisee, and he would actually have to own the cable connecting my two cable systems. On the return, he’d have to get his and I would own his cable, but that’s in essence the way we worked.
KELLER: Which brings me to a point, did you ever operate a leaseback system from a telephone company?
HARRIS: Yes, in Toledo, Ohio. In the early days Cox had started building Toledo, Ohio before I arrived.
KELLER: I wasn’t aware of that.
HARRIS: And they were doing it leaseback from the phone company, and it turned out to be a disaster.
KELLER: Oh, everyone that’s ever been involved with those, that’s been the case.
HARRIS: It was just a disaster.
KELLER: When was this? Was this before the Toledo Blade got involved in cable?
HARRIS: No, The Toledo Blade was involved. They were Cox’s partner. They had gotten the franchise. The Toledo Blade was involved, and Bill and Leo Hoarty was the manager up there, and Cox was charged with operating responsibility, and I can’t remember the ownership. I think it was 50/50, Toledo Blade/Cox.
KELLER: And The Blade eventually bought Cox out then, is that correct?
HARRIS: Yes. They struggled. It was a struggling system. We had a couple of independent stations from Detroit down there, but we didn’t have a lot of product in the mid-60s to sell, and then of course there was a freeze and you had to ride those days out. It was a very tough time.
KELLER: Toledo really was in the class B contour of the Detroit stations, wasn’t it, as I recall?
HARRIS: That’s right.
KELLER: That’s my hometown, so I’m somewhat familiar. I have not talked to the Blocks yet, but I intend to. There was another man involved… Willie, was that his name?
HARRIS: John Wiley.
KELLER: Wiley, John Wiley.
HARRIS: And there was another one, but his name escapes me, too.
KELLER: Block? Alan Block is the son…
HARRIS: Block, he’s Pittsburgh. Now, Cox bought the Blocks Pittsburgh television stations some years before. That’s how the association got to Toledo.
KELLER: I see. But you didn’t have a station in Toledo, did you?
HARRIS: No. I think Cox and The Toledo Blade-Block people got together when Cox bought the Pittsburgh station from the Block family, all of which transpired before I was there.
KELLER: Oh, that was already gone before you were there. I see. So then Hoarty never really reported to you, then?
HARRIS: Well, he reported to a fellow named Doug Talbot, who was the general manager of Cox Cable at the time when I was business manager.
KELLER: I see. And who was president? Leonard Reinsch was president at that time.
HARRIS: Yeah, Leonard was president of broadcasting and cable.
KELLER: And he retained that title until you became president in ’69, is that correct?
HARRIS: Yes, that’s correct.
KELLER: Now, you’re operating in Metrovision now. You built the systems in the quad-cities, and what other operations were you going after then?
HARRIS: Well, just as I was leaving Cox we were involved in Oklahoma City and Fort Wayne, both of whom we won. In fact, I remember Cliff Curtland asked of me to make sure I stayed at Cox and not announce I was leaving until the referendum was run in Oklahoma City, which Oklahoma and Iowa still had to have referendums to confirm franchises in those days, and I did, and we won the election in Oklahoma City. But in the earlier days, we got franchises, we got the quad-cities, which I’ve talked about, Saginaw, Michigan… gee, it’s been so many years ago I can’t recall. I do remember we built them out of… because we had the Atlanta franchise and didn’t know what to do with it, we ended up building them out 150 miles in the city of Atlanta and had absolutely no product to sell.
KELLER: But you were protecting your franchises?
HARRIS: We were protecting franchises. This is pre-HBO days.
KELLER: That was rather a complicated organization, Newhouse was, not necessarily your Metrovision, but Newhouse was rather complicated. Tell us a little bit about how it worked.
HARRIS: Well, I really can’t speak for the internal workings, but basically…
KELLER: I don’t think anyone can.
HARRIS: The two brothers, Donald and Cy Newhouse, ran the company, and my dealings were principally with Donald Newhouse because he had the responsibility for cable. But we formed Metrovision and I didn’t have any net worth to speak of, very little money. I had ambition, but very little money. So the Newhouses agreed to put up all the money but let us, the guys that ultimately went with us, own 20% of the company. We had a buy/sell agreement with the Newhouses so the Newhouses ultimately could acquire our interest. It worked very well. It’s funny how the Newhouse organization worked. They didn’t really believe in budgeting. I do. So we did budgets.
KELLER: Well, you’re an MBA.
HARRIS: But when I needed money from Newhouse, I just picked up the phone and called, and the money would show up in the bank. I didn’t have to give them my projected capital uses for the next year, or anything like that. That’s very unusual.
KELLER: So they were banking on you.
HARRIS: I asked them, did they want me to budget what I was going to spend because we were building cable systems, we were eating a lot of money in the early days of Metrovision, and they said, no, just give us 30 days notice. We’ll get you some money. And to my knowledge, the Newhouses have never borrowed any money. They do it all with internal cash flow.
KELLER: That was my understanding, too, although no one will tell you that. They won’t tell you anything about them, but I had heard that was the case. Now, what was the Newhouse deal with Time Warner?
HARRIS: Well, that was much, much later. We started Metrovision in ’79, and we bought Bill Daniels company with about 90,000 customers in ’89 to give Metrovision a kind of legitimate look. We didn’t have anything but goals.
KELLER: And you bought that with cash from Newhouse?
HARRIS: Yes, we bought that with cash from Newhouse for right around 100 million dollars.
HARRIS: And that gave us a legitimacy for franchising purposes. We kept on franchising, and of course building, so we were eating a lot of cash in those early days of Metrovision when we were franchising and building, franchising and building. We never made an acquisition other than Daniels’ company. Everything else we had was built.
KELLER: That was your only acquisition?
HARRIS: That was our only acquisition. Everything else we built from franchising – a big operation in Detroit, a big operation in the Chicago suburbs, and then we had a big win in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which turned out to be a really big cable system.
KELLER: We had Anne Arundel County, Jones had Anne Arundel County.
HARRIS: Well, Jones bought Prince George’s County after it was part of Time Warner, and in return, I think Time Warner took some cable systems Jones had in Florida. But we went from ’89 all the way through the early ’90s just building and operating Metrovision. In I guess ’94-’95, when people became concerned if you’re not really big, you’re going to have trouble in the business, we put some negotiation with programming supplies. I don’t know who approached who, but I assume Newhouse approached Time Warner, and Newhouse didn’t want to sell. They didn’t want to pay taxes on capital gains, so what they did is they formed a partnership, and Newhouse, between the three companies they owned – New Channels, Vision and Metrovision – had about a million and a half customers. So Time Warner took three million of their customers and they put them into a partnership, Time Warner partnership, and that took place in 1995.
KELLER: And Bob Miron ran that?
HARRIS: Bob Miron was a principle… Newhouse lives on to Time Warner. Time Warner owned 2/3s of the partnership, Newhouse, 1/3. Time Warner, in essence, ran the cable system just like they were wholly-owned cable systems, and had the right to do so as 2/3s owned. But Bob stayed close to the Time Warner management and oversaw his partnership interests.
KELLER: Newhouse, Time Warner, Metrovision, wasn’t there a third arm of the Newhouse interest in cable?
HARRIS: Vision Cable.
KELLER: And who was running that?
HARRIS: Michael Willner ran it out of New Jersey.
KELLER: Any relation to John Willner, the Washington attorney?
HARRIS: No, I don’t think so.
KELLER: He represented ATC. I just wondered.
HARRIS: Yeah, I remember that.
KELLER: You developed Metrovision over how many years?
HARRIS: Well, 1979 to 1995, so 16 years. Actually April 1st – a key date in my life – I went to work at Cox on April the 1st, I started Metrovision on April 1st, and we merged Metrovision along with the other Newhouse systems into Time Warner April 1st. Many years gone by between the April the 1sts but it was a significant date in my cable career.
KELLER: Is Newhouse currently in the business?
HARRIS: Yes. Newhouse, actually effective at the end of this year, will take 1/3 of the subs out of the Time Warner partnership and operate them as their wholly-owned subs.
KELLER: I see. And how did that work?
HARRIS: I don’t have the slightest idea because I’ve been retired a couple of years and I wasn’t involved at all with that. I think Newhouse had the right to take back 1/3 of the subscribers, and I think Time Warner had the right to put, I think at this point in time 1/3 of the subscribers have gone from 1 ½ million in ’95 to 2.2 million today. So in essence, Time Warner put the various cable systems into three piles, if you will, and Newhouse had the right to pick which pile, which third they want.
KELLER: And that’s how they’re going to acquire, then, the Florida systems in Orlando and Tampa.
HARRIS: Yes, they’re principally taking the Tampa, Florida operation.
KELLER: And you said Orlando also, right?
HARRIS: Orlando and Tampa, yes.
KELLER: Tampa’s a big growing…
HARRIS: Together, I think, they’re about a million and a half customers.
KELLER: It wouldn’t surprise me. They have Pinellas County, too, don’t they?
HARRIS: They did. That was an old Visions cable system. I think that now is part of the Tampa division, so it would come back to Newhouse. And actually, Newhouse, it’s my understanding, they’re getting back my old Detroit operation, which was Metrovision, then into Time Warner, then back to Newhouse. So I know Pinellas was part of the Vision cable subsidiary.
KELLER: Tell me how you functioned as a board with Newhouse. Let’s say in any given year that you were going to build 100 miles of plant, let’s use that as an example, you said that you would just call their financial people and they’d send you the money.
KELLER: Did you have any meetings at the beginning of the year to describe what plans you were going to have, or any plans at all? Business plans?
HARRIS: None whatsoever. We planned jobs for when we owned a franchise. We took direction. The Newhouse people are delightful to work for.
KELLER: I would guess that would be the case!
HARRIS: They just give you free rein. Really no strings whatsoever on what you do.
KELLER: And they had a buy agreement with you, you and your people, and that was exercised when?
HARRIS: One of my key guys, Tim Foreman, was going to leave. He left in ’86…
KELLER: He was your financial guy, right?
HARRIS: Yeah, he was my financial guy. ’86, ’88, ’90 were principally the years sold in.
KELLER: In three separate steps?
HARRIS: Well, it kind of trickled through, yeah.
KELLER: And those agreements were cordial also? Those negotiations were cordial with Newhouse?
HARRIS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. All the negotiations were done at the time I formed Metrovision.
KELLER: So you knew exactly what you were going to get.
HARRIS: It was a multiple of cash flow to take us out.
KELLER: Now had the multiple changed?
HARRIS: At that point in time we were positive cash flow. We’d finished building in the early ’90s, we’d finished building and we were generating a significant amount of cash.
KELLER: And you had multiple then of cash flow from which they would buy your stock?
HARRIS: Yeah, that’s right.
KELLER: So you set a value, then, on the entire company in order to be able to do that, or by association would develop… So you knew what the company was worth then at that time?
HARRIS: And we were completely out when they did the Time Warner partnership deal, but we still had some local partners in principally Chicago. So we had to take them out before we could merge those systems into Time Warner, and that was a little bit difficult because the local partners thought they’d struck gold. They thought they could take the entire deal, and when people get in that position they sometimes get really difficult. They couldn’t have, but they thought they could.
KELLER: Yep, we’ve all had that problem with local partners at one time or another. How large a company did Metrovision become?
HARRIS: It was a little over 600,000 customers at the time we folded it into Time Warner as part of a Newhouse partnership.
KELLER: And when will the Newhouse/AOL Time Warner partnership break up?
HARRIS: It’s my understanding it’s effective at the end of this year, this calendar year.
KELLER: I would like to go back just a little bit on something we discussed, I think off-camera, and that was the development of your movie programming in San Diego, and perhaps some other systems that you had while you were with Cox. You were running a full-blown movie schedule, correct?
HARRIS: Well, in San Diego we let a company led by Jeff Nathanson, and I cannot remember the name of his movie service, but he was running the movie service and paid us for access to the cable.
KELLER: And he was selling subscriptions?
HARRIS: He was selling subscriptions, billing them separate apart from the cable bill at the time, and had done very well. I do not recall how many customers he had, but it was a goodly number, and it worked well. We were happy with the deal, and they were. Then in ’77, ’76 when HBO went on satellite and Nick Nicholas was president of HBO at the time, and he visited with me with Cox in Atlanta sometime in ’77-’78, in that timeframe, and wanted HBO on the San Diego system.
KELLER: They went on the satellite in ’74-’75, didn’t they?
HARRIS: Well, maybe this would be ’76-’77, somewhere along there.
KELLER: It probably was a little bit earlier than that.
HARRIS: It may have been earlier than that. He kind of came to Atlanta, Nick came to Atlanta to see me, and he made me a Godfather type offer I couldn’t refuse. Consequently, to allow HBO on, we would now have competing movie systems on those San Diego systems, and I think Jeff Nathanson saw the handwriting on the wall that HBO was probably going to be the surviving service. It had a lot more original programming. Jeff’s service was all movies, no interstitials or anything. It just went from movie to movie. So we bought his operation out to give us a base of HBO customers when we started.
KELLER: And did most of the customers switch over to HBO?
HARRIS: Oh, 100%, I think. I don’t think we lost anybody.
KELLER: You then started to negotiate with the filmmakers, the film companies, is that right? Or had the contracts already existed?
HARRIS: Contracts already existed, and of course HBO had their own contracts. We also were in, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, a movie operation in the city of Atlanta for the 150 miles we’d built in Atlanta.
KELLER: How many customers did you have?
HARRIS: Oh, very few! I want to say less than 3,000 customers. We had no product. Cox had gotten the Atlanta franchise in 1965 based on the T-bone being developed, which we talked about earlier in this conversation. It fell through when the FCC froze; Cox had to do something to save face in the city of Atlanta, so it built maybe 150 miles of cable plant.
KELLER: What part of the city did they build?
HARRIS: Right down in Buckhead, a little bit south of where we are right now on Peachtree.
KELLER: All underground, isn’t it?
HARRIS: No, it was almost all overhead.
KELLER: I would be surprised if it were underground. I thought Buckhead was all underground. Maybe it is now.
HARRIS: It’s not. But anyway, we had very little sell, had the old weather scan and the stock ticker, the actual ticker that came out. That wasn’t cutting it, so we ended up running a little bit of a movie service. You kind of subscribed to cable, it wasn’t two buys. Cable was, in essence, the movie service. We were able to limp along, never made any money with the cable system in Atlanta. I remember… it was cross-ownership; Cox owned the television station and the cable system, so they had to divest of it, and I remember distinctly telling Cliff Curtland that the cable system ultimately is going to be more valuable than WSB-TV, and that was like heresy within Cox Broadcasting.
KELLER: I’ll bet.
HARRIS: But today, of course, it is.
KELLER: And a whole lot easier to manage, I would think. So you never had any direct negotiations then with the filmmakers?
HARRIS: I never did, no, I never did.
KELLER: What years were you on the NCTA board? That’s the National Cable Television Association board.
HARRIS: I served two terms. I served in the late ’60s, early ’70s… three terms, again in the mid-70s, and again in the mid-80s as part of Metrovision.
KELLER: What were the major problems you faced as a member of that board?
HARRIS: Oh! Over that period of time there were tons of them. That covers a lot of ground. I guess my first service in the late ’60s, early ’70s was trying to get the FCC to lift the freeze on cable so we could import some product, and they finally did with grade B contours and all kinds of artificial geographic what you could carry, what you couldn’t carry.
KELLER: And what you had to pay copyright on.
HARRIS: Oh, and then copyright was another big issue with continuing battle with poles. Poles have been there forever, and they never go away.
KELLER: Forever, as long as I can remember.
HARRIS: There are issues that were just huge at the time.
KELLER: I can remember in San Francisco when we were building there because of the total congestion on those poles, you can imagine in San Francisco, it cost us more to rearrange those poles than it did to build the system.
HARRIS: Yeah, it was a very similar situation in the city of Chicago.
KELLER: I’d imagine that would be the case.
HARRIS: It was tough going, and somebody, it was not us, I believe it was Continental, got permission to do a cross-arm on the poles and that saved a lot of make-ready costs. It could have been a lot more.
KELLER: I’m going to stay with Cox – outside of San Diego, what were your major operations in Cox?
HARRIS: The first major was the acquisition of Fred Lieberman’s company in the ’60s.
KELLER: That was up in New England, right?
HARRIS: They gave us systems in New England, and also in Georgia, in Macon and Warner-Robbins, Georgia. It was about 90,000 customers that we acquired. And then we began to make various other acquisitions, systems like Lubbock, Texas, I recall. No real pattern, just systems that came for sale, and the one in Lubbock happened to be owned by a broadcaster who knew the Cox personnel, and that’s how those type things get together. I remember reaching an agreement to buy the Lubbock cable system on a Friday, and on a Sunday, over the weekend downtown Lubbock got hit by one of the worst tornadoes that’s ever gone through Lubbock, but the acquisition was made. And then we franchised. We got the quad-cities area, Saginaw, Michigan, Oklahoma City right as I was leaving at the end of the ’70s. We purchased, again from a newspaper operation, Santa Barbara, California right in the late ’60s. In fact, Fred Lieberman had taken Cox Cable stock, and he had the right to one free registration of the stock so he could sell it and we were in the final throes of registration when we made the deal to buy the Santa Barbara cable system from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, and of course we had to tear up the prospectus and to back to square one again.
KELLER: The Philadelphia Inquirer was involved in Philadelphia, too, competing against Comcast, weren’t they, at one time?
HARRIS: I think they bought it. I think this is years and years later.
KELLER: I think they divided the city up, though. How many divisions did you have in Cox? Were each of your major systems a division in themselves?
HARRIS: No, we operated with two senior vice-presidents of operation. One was Lew Davenport, and Lew ran all the existing systems. Bill Pitney was the other, and Bill took the franchise and built it. So Bill had everything that we built and constructed, and it was a whole different talent. Once a cable system’s mature and operating, it’s a whole different set of rules in the building and marketing and getting one established. So it worked very well. Lew took the existing systems, and Bill took the responsibility for building the systems.
KELLER: Well, Monty had a theory – Monty Rifkin at ATC, had a theory that if you were responsible for acquiring a franchise that you would not operate that system. That was not your case.
HARRIS: Bill did not do any franchising, but he did all our building. So franchising was kind of a collection of myself and Craig Maher and Tom Dowden, back in the old days. We had all different kinds of people.
KELLER: So, then, these two guys had all of your managers reporting to them. You had two divisions, in effect, and those two guys reported to you, and you had an accounting staff, engineering staff, who primarily worked with Bill Pitney then.
HARRIS: Yes, well, obviously Lew had an engineer that was his right-hand engineer, and Dick Hickman actually worked with Bill Pitney getting the cable system built.
KELLER: So that was a pretty lean operation that you had then. And much of the responsibility stayed with your field operating personnel, is that correct?
KELLER: And they would also do their budgets in those operating divisions, submit them to headquarters, and the eventually consolidate them into one financial statement.
KELLER: I see.
HARRIS: Budgeting was always a painful time of year regardless of which company you worked for, be it Cox, Metrovision, Time Warner, whoever.
KELLER: Sure was, and CBS was even worse. We were talking about some of your specific knowledge of the problems that you faced on the NCTA board. You mentioned the telephone company and the pole situation. That finally got resolved by the FCC which then set a flat rate on what the phone companies were going to charge. You mentioned the copyright issues that were developing in the ’60s. There is still controversy over the way that came out, and I don’t understand it because without us paying copyright we never would have been involved in the kinds of operations we are in today as far as the programming services that we have.
HARRIS: But everything goes down hard, and I can recall in the ’60s and mid-70s you’ve got to remember that the NCTA board was made up primarily and principally of independent smaller operators. Big companies did not dominate the board. So a lot of the smaller operators, issues like copyright really went down hard with them. Here I am, I’m in so-and-so Pennsylvania, and I have been for 20 years, I’m not paying.
KELLER: George Barco!
HARRIS: George Barco is a good one.
KELLER: He was an example.
HARRIS: His daughter was another.
KELLER: They were violently opposed to paying any copyright at all.
HARRIS: Oh, violently opposed! And the point I’m making is they virtually controlled the cable board, so there were many, many times when executives of NCTA, Washington lawyers who knew what we had to do if we were going to have an industry, we didn’t know whether we could sell it or not.
KELLER: I ask this question of many of the old time operators, do you remember the Miami convention in 1966, Fred Ford had just been hired, in fact you may have been on the board then.
HARRIS: No. The ’66 convention was two months after I’d been at Cox. It was in June of ’66. My first convention.
KELLER: I’ll never forget that as long as I live, remembering in his introductory speech to the NCTA membership at the Miami convention when he proposed that we trade our programming rights for distant signals. I’ll never forget that.
HARRIS: I can’t remember that.
KELLER: He proposed that to the membership and to the board, and thankfully the board never agreed to it. You were not on the board at that time, though.
HARRIS: I was not. That was my third month in the cable industry and I was just happy to get to go to the convention in Miami.
KELLER: You mentioned that you also had at Cox one experience with a leaseback system from a phone company.
KELLER: And that was where?
HARRIS: Toledo, Ohio. I think Toledo got going… Cox had bought a Pittsburgh television station from the Block family that also owned The Toledo Blade, the newspaper in Toledo. So I think the franchises were gotten by a joint venture of The Toledo Blade and Cox. They had entered a leaseback arrangement with the phone company for the plant, and that had been going maybe a year before I joined Cox in 1966. It probably opened in 1965, and as any leaseback turned out, it was a disaster in terms of operating the cable system.
KELLER: Impossible. They owned from the headend to the drop, and then the cable company owned the drop from the tap to the set, is that how it worked?
HARRIS: That’s correct, that’s my recollection.
KELLER: I never operated under one of them, so I don’t know.
HARRIS: And Cox ultimately sold its interests to The Toledo Blade for a fairly nominal sum. The system was not successful back when it sold. It now is a very good cable system.
KELLER: Very good, and they’ve got all the surrounding communities and everything, all the way up through Sandusky. I have yet to interview Alan Block, but I intend to, and John Wiley, the two of them I want very, very much to interview. The decision for you to leave Cox was very difficult.
HARRIS: I would have never done it if I didn’t think that General Electric was going to buy Cox, and that General Electric was going to be too big an operation for us to successfully franchise.
KELLER: In what way? I don’t quite understand that.
HARRIS: Too many controls. Too many.
KELLER: Unlike the experience that you had then with Newhouse. No controls at all.
HARRIS: I cannot see operating under General Electric, what little I knew about them, ever, excepting the need for local partners in franchising. You and I both did franchising, we both know there were many, many times where you had to have local partners even to get your foot in the door.
KELLER: That’s right. No one would even talk to you unless you had somebody that had a direct relationship with those counsel people.
HARRIS: I just cannot see General Electric ending up stomaching various subsidiaries with local partners.
KELLER: That’s a good question because at one time our good friend, our mutually good friend, Frank Drendel did franchising for General Electric before this situation, and I remember it was in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois when Frank was there representing GE. The reason I remember, that I remember Frank so well, is I can remember standing up before city council and saying do you really want a legitimate cable operator, or do you want a manufacturer of light bulbs. So they were doing some franchising.
HARRIS: I don’t have a recollection of that with Frank. I’ve got a lot of history with Frank over the years, but I don’t recall that. I recall he was working for Continental Telephone.
KELLER: Yes, but he was, he was representing GE, and they did do some franchising. I don’t know how much more they had, and the consultant there, it was the only consulting job I think he ever did, was a guy by the name of Dr. Delbert Smith. I don’t know if you ever ran across DD Smith? He had a triple Ph.D. – communications, law, and economics. He was something. One of those Wisconsin guys. Did you ever do any operations in Wisconsin.
HARRIS: No, thank goodness.
KELLER: You’ve heard of them.
HARRIS: I’ve heard, Madison, and… I did enough in Minnesota to wet my whistle. They’re not too far apart.
KELLER: No, that’s true. They’re the most liberal states in the country, and interesting people in those universities. Cable Television Information Center – what do you remember about them?
HARRIS: Well, I remember principally they were hired, I guess they were the leading consultants to cities.
KELLER: Yes, they were financed by the Urban League, weren’t they, out of Washington?
HARRIS: Yes, I think so. And they would get a very substantial fee from a city to represent the city’s side in the franchising process, and they had a very agonizing form that was about that thick that cable operators would have to fill out when they bid on the franchise. The task of filling the thing out… this is before word processing. Now word processing made the process a lot easier. But there was original typing and printing that went into a lot of these documents. In the ’70s and early ’80s, well, I guess by the early ’80s word processing was in its infancy, but these were agonizing documents to get turned out, and all of us that did franchising had made mistake after mistake. I’d even gotten up to address a city council and addressed them as the wrong city.
KELLER: I never did that, but I can imagine that happening though.
HARRIS: Very often in those documents there was a wrong title or a wrong name. I can remember many rows with committees, well, that’s what it says, that’s what you’ve got to live with, when common sense would dictate otherwise.
KELLER: But one thing that always fascinated me about the CTIC, a guy by the name of Harold Horn and Susan Greene and the rest of that staff, they knew nothing about cable, absolutely nothing when they started. They learned by going through the applications that the companies submitted initially, and if you came up with a novel idea to try to propose in any one city, you found that as a requirement in the next city that they were handling.
HARRIS: We could go on and on. I think I ended up reasonably well-liked by Harold Horn, but we’ve had so many fights over the years, I’d hate to see him.
KELLER: Susan Greene is now on The Cable Center staff. She doesn’t even like to talk about the fact of when she was representing Harold Horn and that bunch. They were tough though.
HARRIS: One of the early days of Metrovision we tried to get the franchise in Cincinnati, Ohio, and everybody was in there. I think we were lost before we ever got in there, and never should have been in there, probably, because Metrovision was brand new and had nothing to show, no operations. But I remember distinctly, I guess at this point in time we were building 54-channel cable systems, but dual cable was a big thing and I remember trying to make a case that it doesn’t make any sense to build dual cable, and got impaled on my own spear when we built dual cable in another franchise.
KELLER: Did you ever have any competing experience with another operator in the same area?
KELLER: Which one was that?
HARRIS: I’ve had a number of them. I had a couple with Chuck Dolan up in Chicago in the suburbs. Nothing big like is going on in Florida. I never had a really huge operation. They were all relatively small.
KELLER: Eventually one bought out the other? That’s how most of them worked out.
HARRIS: Most of them did, but nowadays sometimes the Justice Department, depending on how big it is, would step in and block it and it’s doing away with competition.
KELLER: Well, the FCC would, too, because they were for non-competition.
HARRIS: I guess one of the biggest ones was over here in Huntsville, Alabama between Comcast, and I don’t remember who it was, but it was difficult.
KELLER: And there were some up in Anne Arundel County, I know there were competitive situations there, competing franchises.
HARRIS: Well, Prince George’s County where we operated, franchised the county into two. You bid on the north and you bid on the south. So they actually made separate awards. No overbuilding, but separate… there would have been some overbuilding because Storer had already built some cable systems in the cities within northern Prince George’s County, and it ended up Storer won the north half anyway, otherwise it would have been a difficult situation. We won the south half.
KELLER: So how did you resolve the overbuilding situations in the areas that you operated in?
HARRIS: As I remember, we sold our cable system in Chicago that was overbuilt to Chuck Dolan. I think we sold the system. I can’t recall… I’m sure we had others, I just can’t recall them specifically right now.
KELLER: Did you ever compete directly for the same household as a customer?
KELLER: And were your marketing programs successful in that?
HARRIS: Well, it’s dog-eat-dog. You generally lower a price until it would get ridiculous and the two operators would have to sit down and talk, and that’s generally the way they all have gone. They’re not fun situations to get into, and thank goodness I’ve never been in a big one.
KELLER: I would like to wrap it up with you giving a summation, if you would, of your experience over the 30-odd plus years that you’ve been in the cable business.
HARRIS: Well, it’s been a phenomenal business to be in. I got into it when you would sit next to a guy on an airplane and he’d ask you what you were doing for a living, and you’d say cable TV, and he’d look at you, what in the world is that? To now it’s the dominant provider of television and programming services to some 70 million households at this point in time. It’s been a phenomenal run. There’s just a million stories to be told. But we’ve gone from being the underdog and the anti-establishment, to very much being the establishment of communications. I’ve been there the whole way. I can remember the early days of the broadcasters hated you. It was such an underdog role that you almost had to win.
KELLER; The broadcasters, telephone company, and the filmmakers, the theaters. We’ve worked through all of that and we’ve been a part of that over all these years. This has been the oral history of Henry W. Harris, former president of Cox Cable and Metrovision Cable, member of the NCTA board of directors for three terms, in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, a cable pioneer by both definition and his membership in the Cable Pioneers. This oral history is financed by a grant from the Gustave Hauser Foundation as part of his contribution to The Cable Television Center and Museum in Denver, Colorado. Henry, we appreciate very much you giving us this time.
HARRIS: Thank you, Jim. I appreciate it. I enjoyed it.
KELLER: Thank you.