Interview Date: Tuesday July 13, 1999
Interview Location: New York, NY
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
OTTE: My name is Ruth Otte, O-t-t-e, and I work for Scholastic here in New York.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me how you initially began your career in the cable industry?
OTTE: I started in cable in 1980. I had been working at Coca-Cola and a really trusted friend of mine, who was very frustrated with bureaucratic tendencies of Coke at that time, left and joined Warner-AMEX, which was a joint venture between Warner and American Express, and he just convinced me that as a woman, I was going to get much further coming to new industry than in a much more established business that Coca-Cola had at the time.
INTERVIEWER: I know you joined Discovery in 1986 and at the time, I read in an article that there were only 27 stock numbers in one Apple computer. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what it was like to start a new network?
OTTE: I joined Discovery in 1985 and at the time, we had only a few million customers, and there were other much more established cable networks at that time and it was quite an amazing process. On one hand, we felt really small and kind of like us against the world, and on the other hand, we just had such a deep and committed belief that we could bring higher quality television to U.S. audiences, that people that wanted to invest time and learn something out of the process would be devoted to us if we could just build our subscriber base and our advertising base and put on great programming. So we attracted just an outstanding team of people to a large extent to bring a new kind of educational and entertaining experience to TV.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of challenges were there to starting up?
OTTE: Well, like any start up in the cable business, your first challenge is to get subscribers. So everyone has to dedicate themselves quite fully to that cause and once you begin to acquire a subscriber base, then you can invest more in your programming and begin to build your advertising sales, revenue stream. So everyone you talk to will tell you the same thing – that you have to dedicate yourself to building relationships with the cable companies and telling how you’re unique, what you’re uniquely going to provide and why you’re going to bring value to their cable service. So we spent a lot of time figuring out our story and telling it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever predict the success that Discovery would have in its early days?
OTTE: You know, we really had a sense that we could become a company that provided opportunities to discover on television and through other media. We certainly at that time hadn’t anticipated something quite as directly as the Internet, but we had this sense that via museums or theme parks where there were many different kinds of diverse experiences, we could bring people the chance to discover something about themselves and their world and the wonder of the world. So sometimes you kind of felt like, who are we kidding? You know, we’re just the smaller team trying to build a cable network here but most often, we really had that belief and that sense that we were doing something that could be historically important.
INTERVIEWER: A lot of women were successful when they entered the cable industry during its formative years because there were no definite rules. Would you agree with this? Was it easier to enter the cable business in the mid-eighties then perhaps it might be now?
OTTE: Was it easier to enter the cable business in the eighties? I’m not sure about easy to enter because there definitely was a lot of hiring going on, and I remember a distinct belief that there were no rules, that we were trying to figure out how to market cable television. First of all, just the concept of an uninterrupted movie was a really big deal in 1980 and 1981. It’s obviously commonplace now, but just how to position what we were doing, how to speak about what we were doing was totally new, and we were trying all different kinds of things in different languages and it was very inventive. I think it’s certainly comparable to what is happening with companies today with the Internet, but I remember going around to cable companies in the southeast, which was my territory where I was selling MTV and trying to explain that it was music and pictures and, you know, just finding language for something new is always a fascinating moment, right? And I remember people just being absolutely like, “What?” “I like to make my own pictures when I hear music”, some of these guys would say. In terms of the sense that there were no rules, the early eighties were for me the most exciting period in my career because before that, I had been with large companies where there definitely were a lot of rules. I mean at Coca-Cola, they knew practically what color nail polish people wore when they picked up the six packs, you know. We started to market the Movie Channel in 1980 and Nickelodeon, and nobody really had a sense of how to do this. Even what we were selling was a very different concept to explain to an audience who was used to really having the three networks, and having 24 hours a day, I mean it was hilarious. It sounds hilarious now, but the concept of an uninterrupted movie was a big deal, like you would tell your friends you could get movies without commercials and it was a big deal.
So anyway, it always gave the sense that your ideas were as good as anyone else’s ideas, or that you could take a stand and really take a risk in defending what you thought was the right way to go because it was new and it resulted in a sense of great invigoration and innovation that we were all swept up in. I think it created a very strong sense of teamwork among people working together. We knew we were a part of making history while we were making it, and I think that’s what a lot of people today working in the Internet obviously feel, but I don’t think it’s that common in life to feel that way and it was very exhilarating.
INTERVIEWER: Well obviously cable and telecommunications has changed drastically since you began your career, do you have any predictions for where the industry is headed?
OTTE: Well, in terms of where the industry per se is headed, I’ve not been involved in cable now for a good five years so you might be able to find observers better than I. The part that I’m most excited about is obviously the blend of what we know today as television and the Internet for what the broadband world will make possible. I think it’s going to revolutionize our lives even more than what’s already happened between cable and the Internet. I think the prospect for community and communication and education are going to be staggeringly interesting, and the prospect of what might emerge in terms of new opportunities to connect people and bring ideas forward I think is, I just want to be part of it, I think it’s going to be amazing.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing now? I know that you’re in educational software.
OTTE: I work for Scholastic which has a long history of providing materials to teachers, and all kinds of books and multimedia experiences to kids. So I run the Internet division of the company and we’re creating all kinds of resources.
INTERVIEWER: Would you talk a little bit what you said about choice? I mean you mentioned earlier that cable offered people more choice, was that the most exciting thing to you about cable when you began in your career there?
OTTE: Well, some of the most exciting things that I remember from the early eighties were first this notion of really empowering audiences by bringing them choice because it seems so obvious to us now with the array of choices that we have in so many different kinds of media, but it really wasn’t that way. And the notion that customers could find their niche and tune in at their convenience was a very powerful notion. We, and I guess the industry, really exploited that obviously in our marketing but beyond that the people that we were on the Warner-AMEX team had a lot of vision and they got it real early that by super-serving a targeted audience, you could not only delight the audience but have a very salable advertising story to tell and capitalize on that audience fully, and that that would translate to different kinds of media for merchandise. They were very ahead of the time I think in terms of deeply understanding that, and that today you have the kind of powerhouse that you have with MTV and Nickelodeon is a testimony to that vision, but they were speaking that language in 1980 and recruited a really outstanding team of people that have ended up in many different parts of the business since then. That was, I feel, a really major career opportunity for many of us.
INTERVIEWER: At MTV and Nickelodeon, did you have any model while you worked there of what you wanted the network to be or were you just sort of forging anew?
INTERVIEWER: Looking back at your early career in the cable industry, did you have any role models or any contemporaries that you thought to model yourself after?
OTTE: Well, in terms of people I modeled myself after, I would say my colleagues at Warner-AMEX at the time were definitely in that group. I was, I think, about thirty when I joined the cable industry and up until that time, the companies I worked at all of my colleagues were male and at Coca-Cola when I left there were only a few women in the PR and Human Resources area and it was very unusual to go to a meeting and have another woman in the room, it was very unusual to walk through a suite of offices and see any women’s faces other than in secretarial positions. So entering cable at Warner-AMEX was my first experience of really having a much more balanced team, and some of the people that I worked with there were definitely my role models. So I had the first sense in my career of a team of men and women working together that were competitive in the sense of having a high standard for performance, but who were also very supportive and felt that the whole team would benefit if one of us learned to do something better. It was just a turning point in my career of seeing what deep trust and professional and mutual respect could yield in terms of achieving a lot, and it really set a standard for me that I wanted to have for the rest of my career, and some of those people I would still consider my role models today.
INTERVIEWER: So do you think then that cable was really ahead of the curve in terms of allowing women to advance?
OTTE: I think cable was somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of women’s advancement because we were a new industry. Again, as I said, I think because the rules weren’t fully scripted and we were as an industry making up a lot of things as we went and learning and literally inventing a reality, I think it gave us a certain opportunity and from what I read and understood at the time, I’m not sure it was at all present in other businesses. Nonetheless, it wasn’t that easy. I mean there were still many, many times when I’m sure that I certainly felt and I know that my colleagues did that there were certain conditioned tendencies that some of our male colleagues had and ways of seeing us that we didn’t think were fair or we didn’t appreciate or we had to have conversations with them about. I mean it was a time when attitudes toward women were changing a lot in society and like anything, you could look back and see amazing change but it could feel very incremental in the moment.
INTERVIEWER: How did you overcome some of those rude conceptions that your male counterparts made?
OTTE: Well, I went through a lot of different eras in my own private narratives about what it was to be a woman in business. Having started in my career in 1971, I actually started as a secretary and worked my way up through many different positions in marketing and sales. So I had plenty of experiences, plenty of times of feeling absolutely patronized and diminished and treated as though I didn’t have any kind of real capability. And I know the pain and the anger and the distress that being treated that way can bring, I certainly experienced it many times. So I went through my kind of submissive phase and I went through my very militant phase then I went through my other phase. I think as I grew older and by the time I got into cable, I began to see that if men treated me that way, it was often, it was really never because they deliberately intended to diminish me or be disrespectful, but that there was either a blindness that they had as to how they were coming across or no one had ever talked with them and said that if they spoke in this tone or said these kind of words that it would end up producing tremendous resentment. Even so, I practiced a lot of different things. Sometimes I just took it and simmered and festered and was mad at myself for not taking a stand, other times I would get my courage up and find a way to speak to them. I mean I quickly learned that it did no good to have an angry response, but I practiced and tried many different kinds of responses. Over time as I got more confident and older and also as I could really see that it wasn’t deliberate, I could then approach someone and make it clear that the way they acted would not make us able to work well together as partners and that if there was something that bothered him that much, I would want him to tell me so. Therefore, I was going to tell him this because it would affect our working relationship and the results that we could produce, and I found that most of the time having that kind of conversation, I would say every time, brought us closer together rather than the opposite. So I’m sure that probably a lot of other people that you’ll talk to in this interview would say something similar, but I guess I’m kind of glad that my militant phase mellowed. I think I got a lot further in let’s work out, but this is unacceptable kind of phase.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that opportunities are different for women today then they were even ten years ago?
OTTE: Well, from how I see the world, I think opportunities for women are dramatically enhanced over what they were ten years ago, and certainly twenty and almost now thirty years ago when I started my career. I mean there’s just no comparison to the possibilities that young women see for themselves today, the array of possibilities. The dimensions of what they see that they can do are so much more diverse and so much richer than we could have ever imagined, and that I just think is incredibly exciting. When I went to college, almost every woman I knew saw her choices to be a choice to be a teacher or a nurse, and I in fact became a teacher out of that view of the world. However, today it’s obviously almost limitless what many young girls think is possible for them. At the same time, I think a lot of young women still struggle with what do these jobs really mean, how do I get started, what will I do, what will I like, how do I sort this all out, and I think there’s still a tremendous need to have better advice and better mentoring and better guidance and better exposure, like take your daughter to work day and things like that. I think also that the young women today, at least the ones that I’m exposed to, appear to really be studying our lives, what we traded off, what we gave up, what we, you know, the price we paid in many ways, and I think they are really looking at these issues of balance and how do I have a satisfying life with my children, marriage with my husband and a career, and I think they are wrestling with the whole array of that balance in a more, you know, looking at all three domains and how they’re going to deal with that younger and in a deeper way than we possibly did. Everyone I knew was so focused on this whole career side because it was such a big deal to be taken seriously and to get opportunities, and it was so rare for that to happen that we kind of got skewed a little bit more on the career side than I think today’s women are willing to settle for, and I’m really happy for what they I hope have learned from what we went through.
INTERVIEWER: Early in your career, in the eighties, was there even talk of balance or is this a discussion that you found more recently with women of recent generations? Did you think about balance early in your career?
OTTE: You know, I mostly always thought about balance and that whole issue because everybody was always telling me how unbalanced my life was, what a real kind of disaster I was in that realm of being able to achieve some type of balance. But I don’t really think the discussion was as prevalent. I was just so determined to keep my promises, make a contribution, achieve what I was working on whether it was with MTV Nickelodeon or at Discovery, that I was sort of a more driven type, and I don’t think I engaged with it as seriously as I really wish I would have. You know, that would be something that I always talk about with young women when I see them because it’s extremely hard to decide what for you is going to feel like balance, and I just think a lot of the lip service that’s paid to that topic doesn’t really empower you to make these kinds of choices and to figure out what you want to do. I think a lot of the articles and stuff recently written about it aren’t that helpful so I really encourage young women to have personal conversations with people that they admire on how they’ve achieved it, and ask them a lot of questions about how they do it and why and what was the reasoning behind the choices that they made and how settled are they really with the choices they made. I think it’s crucially important to have some serenity about whatever your choices are as opposed this level of underlying concern and anguish about I’m not giving enough here and I’m not giving enough there that a lot of women still feel.
INTERVIEWER: I want to ask you a question about parity within the cable industry. I know you’ve been away from the industry for five years, but did you have a sense that it was possible to achieve parity or has parity been achieved in cable?
OTTE: Well, I think in terms of parity in the sense of accomplishment and recognition and earnings and whatever standard you would use for that, I think that tremendous progress was made in the time that I worked in cable from 1980 to 1994. I wouldn’t say that real equality in the sense that we’ve always aspired to and know that we deserve was achieved, but I think tremendous progress was made. I mean I think the kind of recognition of the accomplishments of someone like Gerry Laybourne or like really a lot of women on both sides of the industry, the accomplishment of hundreds and thousands of vice presidents and directors and managers. It began to be much more widely understood and appreciated by the time we entered the nineties then it might have been in earlier years. So I guess I would say I think that we made tremendous strides, but I wouldn’t say that we achieved what I would be satisfied with to call a parity or real equality in the sense of all the dimensions in which one could measure that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think parity between men and women in a professional world is attainable within the next five or ten years? Do you think parity is a realistic goal?
OTTE: Yes, I think parity between men and women is an achievable goal. I’m not sure in five to ten years because I think any societal and cultural change of that magnitude is going to take a lot of years. All of us as human beings have automatic ways that we see the world that we don’t question that are the sum total of how we are conditioned and how we were raised and our experiences and the way our nervous system has been configured given the experiences we’ve had and, therefore, we’re still going to have automatic ways of seeing the world on the part of men and women that are going to be limiting for us. On the other hand, it’s so much better than it was. And I think the ways that women have appropriated what in the early seventies, when I started working, were the exclusive domain of men, you know, how to run a big meeting, how to run a company, how to handle a tough negotiation, how to organize an office, how to run a team, how to coach an employee. I think we have taken those things and molded them to make our own way of dealing with those kinds of situations, and we’ve earned the right to do that and we’ve earned the roles that have led us invent that, and that to me is one of the most rewarding things to look back and see. I struggled and went to courses and tried to learn how to do all those things and watched people who did it well, watched people who did it poorly and tried to create my own style, but now you can look around and you can see women who definitely have created entire cultures within companies with their mark, and I think that that happening over and over within a culture makes us see today what we’re seeing and that over time can and will shape a culture. So I’m very optimistic for the future despite the fact that I think there’s an enormously long way still to go.
INTERVIEWER: Can I ask you just a couple of questions about your management style? Did it change over the years or did you ever reach a point where you thought that it was perfected?
OTTE: Well, I think the whole notion of designing one’s management style and one’s way of behaving with the many different constituencies that you deal with never gets perfected. I think anyone’s who dealt with other human beings on a consistent basis knows that it never stops being incredibly challenging, and for me it is the single most interesting, rich area of exploration of my life. I started out in the early eighties, late seventies, constantly immersing myself in some type of course. I’ve done six month courses, three year courses, two week, you name it, in California. I believe that you have to constantly keep building and learning from your experiences in how you respond to others, to a team, to a group, to a company or to an individual and how you bring out the best in that person, how you truly hear their concerns and respond to them and choose when to be a sister and when to be a mother and when to be a tough coach and when to be Patton or all the different moves in your repertoire that you need to have to be an effective leader. Those are very tough choices to make in the moment, on the spot, and to then look at the consequences of that on that other human being and see what happened. To me it’s why I’m still in business, it’s why I love sales, it’s why I love everything I’m doing because human beings can be both incredible and generous and magnanimous and difficult and challenging and small minded and it’s the whole gamut, and I think that working in a company it is more and more understood that you have to recognize the emotional consequences on another’s self esteem and dignity and personhood when you are making decrees and talking to them about their career or creating a new business initiative. And so I guess I think that evolving that is an area that is just crucial to one’s development as a leader in managing. I can’t imagine anyone ever honestly believing they perfected that.
INTERVIEWER: I was wondering how you see WICT influencing the industry at large, and did you notice its presence while you were evolving Discovery?
OTTE: Well, in terms of WICT’s impact in the industry, there’s just so much I could say. For me the relationships that I built through participating in WICT events, the opportunity to ask these kinds of questions that you’re asking today of other people, how do you cope with this, what do you do when you’re treated like this, how you ask for the raise, how did you get this last promotion. I mean just to have the unlimited opportunity to not feel shy about asking those kind of questions because it was okay to seek out that kind of support in the context of an organization like WICT, I just am left with a sense of tremendous gratitude toward that. I think that there’s a tendency when you’re building your career to be very focused on your company and the things you’re trying to create and what you’ve been asked to do or what you’ve promised to do, and going to WICT events always gave me an umbrella, a chance where I could step outside of my own concerns of the moment swirling around, and stand back and see how other people dealt with the same issues and again, not having a shyness about asking that because this was the context in which you were supposed to do that, I will always have a tremendous sense of gratitude to WICT for that.
I think secondly, the different forums that were created for speakers to just speak about industry events and all that, I learned a lot from the many different events I participated in. I think that the organization took its share of little jokes and jabs in the early years about, you know, aren’t there men in cable? Just kind of remarks like that that were made. They stayed steady and true to what they were trying to do for women. And I think now in terms of the large number of chapters and the recognition that they have, I think the organization really earned it and I appreciate what it stood for and it meant very much.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have anything you want to add? Anything more about WICT or Discovery or the industry?
OTTE: Let’s see. In a way that it was really hard at times, and in another way it was so fast moving and you had the sense that you were changing the world really, the simultaneousness of both of those things. Coming from a meeting with some guy, some MSO that really beat you up and at the same time, standing back at an annual convention or event and seeing the number of new channels, the increase in ratings, the increase in ad sales, the increase in identity of when you first used to carry around a Nickelodeon bag in an airport and nobody knew what it was to where a few years later, anybody you saw wanted to pay you $100 for it. So it was this amazing time when you felt like what you were doing was important and was going to lead to something much bigger, and yet you were having to still as a woman fight your way for every inch you got. Both of those senses were always there. Does that make sense?
INTERVIEWER: You had two different impulses really at work. Like on one hand, you had the sense of purpose, and on the other hand I’m a woman, what does this mean, where am I going with my career. Is that what you’re saying?
OTTE: Not so much what am I doing with my career, but I guess this is how I would say it. I think that for me, the notion of blending and partnering, as a woman, was my natural orientation, and it was easy for me to be a good team member and work well with others, but the issue of my own boundary, what I would tolerate in terms of indignity or not being treated fairly, that’s what I had to really develop. My own personal issues were around and still I think probably always will be. We have to have the capacity to blend and team up and cooperate well with others and if you blend too much that you lose a certain portion of yourself, it becomes an issue of now where’s my boundary here and where’s my stand and what is okay with me or what is the treatment I won’t tolerate – the tone of voice or the dismissive, little, hey, honey, or whatever thing happens.
So for me the years in cable were a constant dance with that, a constant experimentation of my own strength, my own boundaries, who am I and defining myself while this whole industry was defining itself. I’m not sure to what extent that’s an issue for everyone, but I suspect that it is.
INTERVIEWER: That’s interesting how you phrased it before like in your narrative, your identity as a working woman shifted and that’s interesting. Your militant phase versus another phase versus another phase, and that to me was really interesting to hear about.
OTTE: Most of the women I know that were in the cable business, and there were a lot of women that I knew, I could feel them and myself trying to define what’s the mix of femininity and power that is right for me. I went through a phase many, many years where I didn’t wear any jewelry, anything but gray suits and little white shirts and this is what all the books told us to do, right? And, you know, there was a tremendous trade off in our femininity in an attempt to assert ourselves and to achieve a certain recognition and to have the capacity to take a powerful stand, but I think that the eighties, particularly the women I knew in cable, were looser in that way. We certainly didn’t wear all gray suits by that time any more, and this blend, I think people like Gerry and many others began to show that you didn’t have to trade off your femininity, that in order to be powerful that both of those are compatible and in fact desirable. Yet you could see, I worked with women who were very tough and you could see why they took that stand, and I worked with other women who were quite flirtatious and a little sexy most of the time. And that wasn’t really me and the other one wasn’t really me, and we all had to find, maybe this will be how it always is for women, I haven’t really spoken about this with young women, but I think finding that comfort level, the degree to which your own femininity can co-exist with your own sense of power and your own stand in the world is a very rich area of exploration for women, and certainly was when we didn’t have people to show us the way. You know, we didn’t have people we could look at. I mean I certainly could look at some of these really sort of police-like, more militant women and say, “I don’t want that, I don’t think that even works,” but I could also look at women who were way too submissive, where they traded off a lot of their power by pursuing a more flirtatious kind of way of being, and today I think women can look around and see people who have adapted that, you know what I mean? We didn’t really have anyone to look at, we were kind of making that up and I think a lot of us tried different approaches in different moments.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever talk to each other about this issue or did it sort of silently move over to the relationships with other women? Would you actually say, I don’t think I can survive in this culture with this attitude?
OTTE: Oh, all the time, constantly, right. You know, many, many women had to work in situations where their bosses were condescending or who occasionally did things that were quite demeaning. So it was a constant topic of conversation certainly at Women in Cable events, but a lot of times to what degree could you shift the culture you’re in and men around you or to what degree couldn’t you, and then maybe you should find an opportunity somewhere else or in another department or something, and I think that that’s probably not that unusual. I think that maybe not so much because of men’s attitudes today, but to some extent I think people still struggle with that exact notion, to what degree can I shift this culture versus do I have to accept that I alone can’t or to what degree can I build an alliance for let’s have a different way of being. That was to me the most exciting thing about going to the Discovery channel, having been affected by many different management styles, some of which were terrible, some of which were excellent, I had the first real opportunity, since there were only 27 people, to say, “What are the values that we’re going to declare for how we’re going to treat each other and our customers?” I literally wrote them up before I started there and everyone that we asked to join the company we asked, “Can you sign up for this – these values of commitment and concerns for others, to mutual respect?” I knew that a lot of money and time and waste exist in companies because people can’t get along and don’t have principles or real values for how to treat one another. So we took a stand about that and said, “We’re going to be the kind of place where we treat each other in these ways because it’s going to make us more innovative, more productive, more efficient.” So for me that had been carefully honed over many tear laden nights over the years. Then I had my first opportunity to declare it and make an invitation to others to come and create a different kind of work place, which I could do in my little group where I managed before, but now I had the first chance to do it in a company. So that was probably one of the most memorable career moments for me.
INTERVIEWER: Do you recall that the networks made an attempt to create a new kind of culture? Because I know there’s a lot of talk about that particular culture at Discovery and maybe that’s one way that cable really changed the landscape of work for women. Were the networks deliberately trying to create a specific culture?
OTTE: Well, I certainly know at MTV and Nickelodeon that–
INTERVIEWER: Could you just tell me about, I know MTV tried to create a distinct culture, could you tell me a little bit about that?
OTTE: Yes. MTV and Nickelodeon took the notion of culture very, very seriously. I mean they defined a set of attributes for the channel that permeated into the culture of the company. I mean now, what, some fifteen years later, I can still spell offers, you know, funky, zany, slightly illegitimate, rock and roll, irreverent, zany, I forget. There were a co-host of attributes like that about defining the channel and its attitude that permeated into the culture. I mean they had such a high bar for creativity and for a fresh idea and for an idea that we really deliver on the MTV attitude or the attitude of Nickelodeon to be kid friendly. I can’t remember all what they were now, but definitely I think a strong declaration from the leadership in terms of the creative platform and the creative stand for the channels was history making. That made the channel what it was, and also permeated the culture that the ways things were done, the fast moving nature of the company, the creative championing that happened there. They had ruled that nobody below VP could wear a suit and make sure that everybody stayed fresh. I will always admire Tom Freston and a number of the other people there very much for that stand. I think it really brought out some tremendous imagination and very original thinking.