Interview Location: Denver, CO
Interviewer: Rex Porter
Collection: Hauser Collection
PORTER: I’m Rex Porter and we’re at the AT&T Media facilities to interview cable pioneer Bill Riker. Bill Riker is presently Chief Technical Officer for the National Cable Television Center and Museum. Bill, welcome.
RIKER: Thank you.
PORTER: I’m quite used to talking to Bill Riker about the SCTE over the number of years he was heading up the society. Before we get into that period of your history, Bill, why don’t you bring us up to date going back to your early years, growing up, high school, and so forth.
RIKER: You want to go all the way back?
PORTER: All the way back.
RIKER: I grew up in a town called Chatham, New Jersey which is about 45 minutes west of New York City. During those years, I spent a lot of time seeing the sights of New York, first with my parents and then on my own. I went to Chatham Township High School and at that point in time got interested in music. I joined the band there at the school, but eventually branched off to start my own “garage band” back at home. Because of the influence I was getting through traveling to Greenwich Village and seeing Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East, concerts and clubs, I really got very much involved with the music business.
Concurrently, I was also very much interested in film and had my own 8 mm camera and was taking my own home movies. I was also a projectionist, first at the YMCA in town and then became projectionist for one of the local theaters. Both of these two backgrounds really got me interested in electronics. As we traveled around the state with the band, when the equipment used to break down, lucky me was the one to be asked to repair it. So that seemed like an interesting direction to go at college so I did go to a school for electronic engineering.
After graduating from Monmouth University, I was lucky enough to get a job in radio. At first, I was building sound systems for some of the dinner theaters that they owned. Then I went on to design one of the first quadraphonic broadcast studios in the country. If you remember, after two-channel stereo came along, they decided the next step was going to be four channel stereo. We built a broadcast studio that could do discrete, QS and SQ encoding of different audio signals in order to deliver four-channel programming. As the FCC, in its infinite wisdom, the same as when it dealt with AM radio, did not choose a specific technology or format to distribute those signals. So four-channel kind of went by the wayside because it was never standardized.
PORTER: What you’ve got today is just surround-sound.
RIKER: Now it’s five-channel sound. I heard just two days ago now they have a 12-channel system that they want me to look into for The Cable Center.
PORTER: Oh good.
RIKER: After what I considered mastering audio, my desire was to get into television. Being in the New York area, that seemed like a logical move. However, by the time I decided to get into television in New York, most of the production had moved out to Hollywood and Los Angeles. I was offered a position as a cameraman for the New York Yankees games at Yankee Stadium. I said, “Well, that sounds great, but what do I do when the Yankees aren’t playing and the season’s over?” They said, “Do like the rest of the union guys – collect unemployment.” That just didn’t seem like the way I wanted to start off my career in television.
I saw an ad for a chief engineer position at a cable television system. While I had heard about cable television and all the wonders it could deliver back when I was a kid, like pay-per-view and uncut movies, that type of thing, it was never available in the town that I grew up in until well after I had left. So it was really a new concept to me, but it had the word television in it so I figured it must be linked to what I really wanted to do. That was Dick Loftus’s system in Hoboken, New Jersey. A gentleman by the name of Hank Majors was the general manger there at the time. He hired me on to maintain a 60-mile system with about 12,000 subscribers on it.
PORTER: How many channels?
RIKER: We had 20 at the time. It was a Jerrold Starline 20 system which was pretty high-tech compared to what I have seen in other areas. It was a real manageable system that was also a good place to learn. We had a headend up on the Palisades Mountains overlooking Manhattan. One of the big problems we had was that you could get a better picture off your antenna than you could off the cable system because the Empire State Building was within visible distance. You could get the signals directly without any amplifiers as opposed to going to a headend, being processed in several distribution amplifiers to get to your house. So the signals we offered were usually worse than what was available over the air.
PORTER: Did you bring in the Philadelphia channels also?
RIKER: Not yet. It was something I ended up doing later on. At the time they started moving the broadcast towers from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center – I don’t know if you remember that happening –
PORTER: I wasn’t there but I remember it happening.
RIKER: Since they started building the World Trade Center, it interfered with the propagation of signals from Empire State. So they made a several year transition to move the antennas on top of World Trade, which is where they are now. In doing so, this caused us to completely reorient our headend, because now we were aiming in a different direction. In fact, the reflections off the New York skyscrapers became different. Surprisingly enough, the Channel 2 signal coming in right off World Trade was so full of ghosting that we ended up going through the whole town with a little Radio Shack antenna and a TV set and finally found that the best picture we could get for the system was on the roof of a bowling alley in North Bergen, N.J. We ended up paying that guy an exorbitant amount of money – something like $500 a month – to be able to put an antenna on his roof and then back haul Channel 2 all the way to the headend, because that picture was better than what we could get at the headend site.
PORTER: Did you have UHF stations also?
RIKER: We did have several UHF stations.
PORTER: Then the problem with them must have been compounded as far as ghosting.
RIKER: It was a challenge, but the UHF’s were coming from directions away from Manhattan. We were also one of the first systems to get a feed from Home Box Office. At that point in time, HBO was being transmitted out of New York City at Two Penn Plaza, on top of the Madison Square Garden facility, and was only being distributed by microwave. With our proximity, we were able to get a microwave feed from them. Prior to that, for a very short period of time, we were going the old bicycling of tapes route where HBO would create hundreds of ¾” tapes and send them out to each cable operator for them to play back, almost as a local origination station.
We were one of the first to make that transition to a live feed – not by satellite, but just by microwave. Because subscribers could receive all of their off-airs at the same quality or better through their own antenna as opposed to the cable system, our system was going to be first to declare bankruptcy because we just didn’t have the subscribers. I’ll give you an example. Hoboken, New Jersey – ever been there? Home of Frank Sinatra, The Clam Broth House, and all those exciting things. They did a demographic study and usually the breakeven point for building a cable system is 100 homes passed per mile. In Hoboken, it was 1,000 homes (or apartments) passed per mile because it was such a densely populated area. So the marketers said, “Can’t lose.” Actually we did lose because the signals that everybody received off-air were better than having to pay us for it.
So it wasn’t until we introduced HBO, which now gave them something they could not get without the cable system, that we turned it around and started making a profit. That system was then bought by Prime Cable. I’m not sure if it’s still with them or not. That’s where it went. Then they expanded and built in several of the other cities around the area.
You’d asked me about the Philadelphia stations. At the time, we could not receive the Philadelphia stations from all the way in New York City. I worked for several months on different antenna configurations and tried to convince my boss that this was a worthwhile investment. We ended up getting two large UHF antennas that were about 20′ tall each. They had multiple butterfly elements on them. One was tuned for Channel 29 and the other Channel 17, which were the two we were bringing in from Philadelphia. With that and some very sharp notch filters and some very good pre-amps, we were able to bring in signals from over 100 miles away with surprising clarity. That was another thing that helped us turn the system around financially.
PORTER: So now you’ve got HBO, and you’re still there. You’ve got two additional stations that people can’t get. How long was it before you got another one, or did you leave there before then?
RIKER: At that point, I was offered a position in New Jersey in Bob Bilodeau’s system, which was called Suburban Cablevision. Bob had worked for Peter Gilbert out in Long Island. When Peter Gilbert sold the company to Viacom, he gave each of his managers bonuses as part of the sale. Bob Bilodeau and another gentleman named Mitchell Kleinhandler took their bonuses and used it to buy a franchise in East Orange, New Jersey. From there, they built a system over a period of ten years to encompass not only that one town but all of Essex County and then expanded into all of Union County. When I joined them, there was probably about 200,000 subscribers. When I left, there were over 600,000.
My job there was to interconnect the master headend in East Orange to all of the different communities within those two counties. We did that by AML microwave for the most part. So I was building hub sites all over the area and erecting the towers and dishes to bring in the feeds. It was quite different than climbing poles. Now I’m climbing towers. It was a whole new technology, and AML was really an exciting thing to work with in those days.
PORTER: They didn’t have very tall towers in the New York/New Jersey area?
RIKER: I’d say the tallest tower that I had to climb was about 200′.
PORTER: That’s a good sized tower. I couldn’t climb 20′.
RIKER: One of the first microwave dishes I installed was on the roof of the Gulf & Western Building in New York City. We were linking the local origination feeds from our office over to Gulf & Western, and then sending them out into Long Island. So we ended up having to put a dish on the roof of that building which was over 80 stories tall. Bringing that dish to the top of the roof and then mounting it was quite an exciting chore. When I went to leave, there was an updraft inside the freight shaft. The loading dock was open so air could come in and out. But there was such a strong wind that day when I was at the top floor and tried to go down, we didn’t go down. The air was keeping us up. Then when the wind gusts stopped, we dropped about two floors. That was my last time at Gulf & Western.
PORTER: How long did you stay with Suburban?
RIKER: I was there for 2 ½ years. The last thing I did for them was to install a series of seven microwave hops to distribute the New Jersey Nets games. The Nets were a brand new basketball team playing out of Rutgers, New Jersey and we would bring that signal into Madison Square Garden so it could be added to the Sports Network there.
PORTER: Which is now MSN?
RIKER: Madison Square Garden Network.
PORTER: So what happened after … Why did you leave Suburban?
RIKER: Going back to my music days and having experienced what I did in New York City, I always wanted to go out to California, specifically San Francisco, since I knew Jerry Garcia lived there, and the Jefferson Airplane. I wanted to see the scene there. Plus, I love water and had heard there’s no better place to be than San Francisco. So I put my feelers out and was offered jobs at Cox Cable in San Diego and with TCI in San Francisco. I chose the TCI option because I felt San Francisco was going to be less of a culture shock coming from Manhattan, than going to San Diego, even though Cox had a very good operation. I didn’t think I was going to be quite up for slowing down to that pace. That turned out to be true. We used to do telethons in the San Francisco area. Where you can get a hamburger at 3:00 AM at almost any place in New York City, even in San Francisco there wasn’t one to be found.
PORTER: That was a Viacom system in San Francisco, right?
RIKER: The one I worked for was TCI which served Daly City, Brisbane and Pacifica, along the San Francisco peninsula.
PORTER: So south?
RIKER: Yes. We had the headend up on the San Bruno Mountain, which overlooks the city and also Mount Sutro tower. There was very poor grounding up there because of the fact that we were sitting on a big chunk of rock.
I experienced my first earthquake up there which was quite a thrill. It’s a real quick story. We were doing some grounding work up in the headend. We took copper screening and grounded the entire outer shell of the headend because of all the RF interference. We had music playing and the tech that was working with me was dancing around to the music. I thought he was dancing a bit too much and I looked up at him to tell him to stop it. There he was, standing against the wall like this. I realized it wasn’t him that causing the floor to shake. It was an actual earthquake. It’s quite unusual. It’s not like it just shakes. It really shifts, so you go this way and then you go this way, and then you go this way and it finally comes to a stop. That was an experience I will never forget and luckily had not repeated since.
PORTER: Does that have anything to do with you leaving TCI in that area?
RIKER: No. Not at all. I loved the area. Pacifica was just a gorgeous place. It was basically a horse town on the Pacific Ocean, yet you could be in downtown San Francisco in a half hour. So life-style-wise I enjoyed it thoroughly.
One of the biggest problems that I ran into the day I got there, was that Channel 2 had quite a bit of interference in it. So I got my spectrum analyzer up to the headend and started tracking it down. It took about a week, but I finally identified that there was a pager transmitter also located on that mountain that had poor output filters. There were spurious beats outside of its bandpass. So I brought the FCC up there, showed them my equipment, showed them the tests I had performed. They said, “You’re absolutely right. It’s that pager transmitter right over on the other side of the street here. We’ll issue a cease and desist on them until they repair their output filters.” So the picture got clean for a day, and I was getting all kinds of recognition throughout the town which had had to live with this interference for years. Then a day later it came back again. I’m sitting there puzzled. How did I misdiagnose this? Come to find out, that transmitter was a medical pager network for all the doctors in the Bay area. Because of that, it was a necessity for life safety and they were allowed to come back on and operate until they got around to fixing the filters.
PORTER: Did they ever get around to fixing them to your knowledge?
RIKER: I departed before that happened. The reason I did depart was Showtime had approached me out there. It was a new division of Viacom. Now that they had just gotten up on the satellite, they wanted to start tearing down the stand-alone playback facilities, which were all over the west coast, and replace them with 10-meter earth stations. So for about a year, my job was to travel along the west coast of the country tearing out studios and replacing them with Scientific Atlanta dishes.
PORTER: Did you ever work with earth stations before they came to you and said, “How ’bout this job?” Or you went to them?
RIKER: No, they came to me and just said, “We need somebody out there to do that. What do you think?”
PORTER: Did you learn by hands on or did you go to SA school?
RIKER: No. The first dish I built was up near Portland, Oregon. I sat down there with a bunch of crates and a bunch of manuals. My boss, Jim Vaughn, came out from New York to give me some assistance. We erected that first dish in a couple of days. Then they decided they didn’t want to send me all over the country because they were trying to build these things much faster. So the next time I built one, they decided to videotape my construction process, thinking that then they could send this training tape out to cable operators and say, “Build your own. Here are the plans. Here’s the tape. Go for it.” Needless to say, that didn’t work. So they eventually transformed that video tape into a PR piece to show communities how important this monstrosity of a dish was to their home entertainment value. Dishes being put up the size that they were at the time were not being very well received and considered community eyesores.
PORTER: That would be a daunting task. How many locations? When Showtime came to you and said, “You’ve got to tear this down and put in an earth station.” They had to have a lot of these locations already sold. So this had got to be kind of daunting. You must have had a list a mile long or across the United States.
RIKER: Yes. Well, I was only responsible for the west coast, but that still did not minimize the volume that was out there.
PORTER: And they continued to sell Showtime so now you’ve got to erect more dishes, right?
RIKER: Right. Two things really happened shortly thereafter. One is that cable operators, the engineering staff and the cable operations themselves got more dish savvy and started being able to build them on their own. Some got SA to actually come out there and help them with that process. Then the other benefit to me was that when my boss, Jim, left New York, they promoted me and brought me back to New York to oversee a whole regional engineering department that would then go out and finish these types of jobs. At that point in time, it wasn’t only getting the dish up there, but it was also the fight for channel space and security for the signals.
I don’t know if you remember back at the Western Show about 1980 or so, that Showtime came out with what was called “Dual Pay”. They had a whole bunch of statistics showing that a cable system could actually continue to bring in even more revenues by offering two competing pay services as opposed to choosing either HBO or Showtime. The technology usually used for the first premium service was a negative trap, where you would trap out the signal to everyone who didn’t take it, assuming that the majority (over 50% of the people) would take it. So that’s a lot smaller amount of hardware that had to go in. But when you add the second channel of service, its buy rate was going to be significantly lower, so you used positive trap technology, where you only had to put traps onto the drops that took the service.
PORTER: When it was the second pay service, was the first one Showtime and the second one The Movie Channel?
RIKER: At the time it was HBO or Showtime.
PORTER: Oh, I see.
RIKER: The Movie Channel and Cinemax were a few years later. So for some reason, probably because of Viacom’s strong presence on the west coast, Showtime seemed to be dominant out there. HBO was dominant in the east. So we became a second pay to the east and HBO became a second pay to the west.
PORTER: Since there was common use of the satellite dish, did HBO send one of their men in to assist you with all this work you were doing for Showtime?
RIKER: If we were coming in to do the first pay service, then it was our responsibility. If we were coming in to add the second pay service, then the dish was already up and running. I assume they felt the same way, coming in on the other end.
PORTER: I just wondered about that. I never knew that HBO and Showtime shared a dish that way. It’s interesting. Okay, so now you’re doing all this tearing down and putting back up.
RIKER: That was a multi-year project. The other part was really to convince cable operators how to secure the premium signals. So the regional staff not only built the dishes, but also went out and worked with the headend techs and the general manager on how to roll out a second premium service economically. Then came the issue of back yard earth stations. Now we’re not talking about the small dish network dishes we have now. We’re talking about good size, 6′ diameter, back yard earth stations that were coming up mostly in areas that were not served by cable itself. But also, they were coming up in metropolitan areas because they could steal the premium signals for free.
PORTER: Because the signals were unscrambled at that time.
RIKER: Exactly. So that was my next challenge – to research all the different scrambling technologies. General Instrument had one, Scientific Atlanta had one, Leitch Video had one. There were quite a few others that developed different technologies on how to scramble. None of them had been tested over a satellite link. So what I and others would do was test the picture quality at the decoder. We were unsure as to which one would remain most secure.
I remember going to the Texas Cable Show in about 1981 when we were just about ready to roll out scrambling. One of the trade press rePORTERs interviewed me about Showtime’s plan to scramble. One of the questions she asked was, “Do you think anybody will try to steal the signal and unscramble the technology?” I said, kind of tongue in cheek, “I bet MIT will make it their class project.” That was my first press interview. I’ve learned since then. As a result, an article comes out the following week that says, “Showtime’s RIKER Challenges MIT to Break Its System.”
PORTER: So did they? Did you ever hear anything from MIT students? Usually you challenge an engineering school like that, they’ll take you up on it.
RIKER: Certainly, you know, the system had been broken. HBO selected Videocipher, which became the industry standard and that’s why there’s Videocipher II, etc. out there because of needing higher security capabilities.
PORTER: So Videocipher got picked.
RIKER: Yes. HBO made that decision so it kind of became a de-facto.
PORTER: Before we get away from unscrambled signals, I always wondered about something. There were a lot of companies back then that actually sold dishes to poor unsuspecting customers and told them that they would always be able to pick up these channels. Then these companies went to some retirement location, some island, and took all their money with them. Did you ever catch flack from cable customers or people out in the field associating you with that? That was a bad era in telecommunications.
RIKER: It’s just that the technology advanced and backyard Earth Stations proliferated faster than we thought. It was really the movie makers who put the pressure on us to scramble. For us, it was a huge investment. We weren’t in any real rush to do that. We were still making good money off of the people who were legitimately paying for it. But for the movie producers, they were just watching all of their copyrighted product go out into the sky for free. They were the ones who really wanted to see us scramble and secure their product.
PORTER: I just remember I had a number of relatives who picked on me by saying that the earth station or the dish people sold them dishes and told them, “Buy this dish and these signals are never going to be scrambled. You’re always going to be able to pick it up for free.” Then when they tried to call the owner of that company back or locate that company, he was always in South America or down in Bermuda. So I just thought I would ask you about it.
RIKER: If the sales person was honest, he’d have said, “Well, they’re talking about scrambling so you may someday not be able to continue to steal signals for free using my dish,” which is the more accurate way to say it. We really didn’t get calls from Earth Station owners because there was plenty of notice scrambling was going to happen. We used to even put warnings on – “You have one month …” because we could give them a decoder. So unless they wanted to start paying for it, at the subscription price, premium channels became scrambled one by one.
Videocipher came out with not only a headend industrial strength model, but also a home use decoder model, as well. As far as the cable subscribers we had, which of course are loyal customers, were happy to address the fact that they’ve been screaming about – others being able to steal something that they’ve been paying for.
PORTER: … got honest all of a sudden.
RIKER: Exactly. So it really didn’t turn out to be that much of a problem for us, except for your relatives.
PORTER: Yes. They complained about it.
RIKER: Then the other one that was a big PR issue for us, and actually still remains to be so, are these ads that you see even in the newspaper of the airline magazines. They would say, “Get cable channels for free.” These were not the descramblers that would take the signals off the satellite, but these were boxes that were either manufactured by the industry, got into a refurbished pile, got rebuilt, and then got modified a bit to be able to descramble everything. These worked when signals were being scrambled by the cable system, not scrambled on the satellite.
There were a number of companies that were out there selling boxes that could then steal pay services that were already in the cable systems. They just paid their basic rate and they got everything else for free on top of that. We were getting irate letters. Actually by this time, I had moved on to NCTA. We’ll get to that in a second. But we were dealing with cable operators sending us these ads and where they got them from saying, “Can’t you do something to stop this? These guys are jumping all over our business.” Then you might remember the acronym “COST” – Cable Opposing Signal Theft. It was a coalition …
PORTER: Of operators?
RIKER: It was a division of NCTA and its goal was to help operators stop theft of signal, whether it be people tinkering with the boxes they were issued by the cable operator or by people buying illegal boxes and bringing them into the cable system. So we created a couple of court cases in that process and fined some of these vendors very heavily. Most of them have gone away. Occasionally you’ll see an underground newspaper carry one of those type of ads. I think even that will disappear soon as the industry moves closer towards digital video transmission as opposed to just scrambled analog transmission. Then those boxes will be useless.
PORTER: So how did you get to the second stage of Digicipher?
RIKER: I had left before Digicipher II came on. My dealing with Showtime was through the transition to Earth Stations and then scrambling of the signal for the first time.
PORTER: So you’ve got all those studios torn down and dishes put up and said, “I want to go do something else”?
RIKER: I don’t know if you know Frank Bias. Frank was my mentor at Viacom, a wonderful person. He had asked me to start attending NCTA’s Engineering Committee meetings so that Showtime also had a presence there. HBO was already there. Frank kind of represented Viacom and Showtime, and he felt there needed to be two people doing that. So I started attending the NCTA’s bi-monthly engineering meetings, and we started dealing with issues such as keeping video quality high and audio levels uniform.
PORTER: Now are you still on the west coast and you’ve got to go back to Washington, DC to attend these?
RIKER: No. I was back in New York at that time.
PORTER: Oh, you’re back in New York now, okay.
RIKER: In 1980, I was promoted and transferred back to New York and had the regional engineering group underneath me after that.
So after attending these engineering committee meetings at NCTA, I got on a number of the satellite transmission committees because there were no standards on the video transmission, no standards on the level of the audio signals. So we, as a fledgling industry, started trying to change that so when you change from satellite channel to another satellite delivered channel, the sound didn’t go way up or the picture didn’t bloom, whatever. We were very successful in getting the programmers together to kind of set their own standards on how satellite transmissions should be handled.
Because of my involvement in that and in a number of other subcommittees at NCTA, when Wendell Bailey, who was Vice President of Science and Technology at NCTA, created a new position called Director of Engineering, he asked me to assume that role. It was actually a very tough decision whether to leave what I was happy doing at Showtime and going into a nonprofit organization down in Washington, D.C. But I was always up for a challenge and this seemed like a great one with a position that hadn’t existed before. There was really a great need for imparting more information to the FCC and Congress about the technical capabilities and constraints of our industry because, as you know, we were being regulated very heavily and the broadcasters were lobbying against us very strongly. I was there from 1982 to 1985. During that period, I was involved in the passage of the Cable Act of 1984 due to the lobbying efforts of Wendell, myself and, of course, the entire NCTA staff.
PORTER: Did you find yourself working more with satellite dish problems in that role at the NCTA than you did general cable problems?
RIKER: Actually that’s what we ended up dealing with was most of the general cable problems. They included the differences in franchise fees, the differences of how franchises are negotiated, minimum customer service guarantees, signal leakage and pricing. I remember when Jim Mooney was president of the NCTA at the time, he said to the operators, “We got this bill passed, but be careful of your newfound freedom because you’re deregulated now. Don’t blow it.” Sure enough, rates went high, and there was a reregualtion of the industry several years later.
PORTER: So how did you get away from the NCTA?
RIKER: Pretty much the same way I got away from Showtime. I shouldn’t say ‘got away from’ but ‘got drawn away from’. At NCTA working with Wendell, SCTE, the Society of Cable Television Engineers, was going through hard times which, you well know having been a charter member of the society. They were looking for a new executive vice president to take over the helm of what was really a much needed, but not very organized society.
Wendell asked me if I would help out as a volunteer in order to keep good relations between NCTA and SCTE. So I started attending SCTE meetings and got involved with the chapters. I remember going to one meeting where they were just thinking about doing a certification program. I went out to the bathroom or something to take a break. I came back, and they said, “Well, we’ve just elected you head of the certification program, and the first exam we want you to write is about distribution systems, and we want to have it ready by three months from now.”
PORTER: Is this part of what turned out to be the BCTE?
RIKER: That’s exactly correct, yes. Originally it was going to be called PCTE (Professional Cable Television Engineer) and a lot of the states had a problem with the term PE being a part of it. So we had to go to BCTE (Broadband Cable Telecommunications Engineer – or Technician as the case may be). So I believe because of my involvement as a volunteer with SCTE plus my leadership in rolling out a whole new certification program, …. Tom Gimbel had set the groundwork as far as how the program should be administered, but the role of creating exams fell into my hands. So we started doing that. It was Dave Franklin, who’s now with Time Warner Cable, who came and asked if he could put my name into the hat for the new Chief Staff Executive.
PORTER: He was with Comcast then, wasn’t he?
PORTER: Adelphia, yes.
RIKER: Then I interviewed with Andy Deveraux, who used to be with American Cable Systems, Tom Polis and Jim Emerson, who was the president at that time. I decided there again, that while I was happy with NCTA and with what I was doing, this is such an opportunity that I could either be a hero or a failure very quickly because the organization was in financial trouble.
PORTER: … and going bankrupt…
RIKER: Even more so – bankrupter. If I didn’t do it and somebody else did, I would always have regretted not taking on the challenge.
PORTER: At that time the headquarters was in Washington, DC. Is that true?
RIKER: It was in Washington, DC when Judy Baer was running it. After she resigned, basically the offices belonged to her, and she had leased them to SCTE so SCTE had no offices. So Tom Polis was kind enough to give us space in his warehouse. Tom and George Tamasi ran a construction company at the time.
PORTER: Plus go over and pick up all the paperwork and all the records.
RIKER: Yes, Tom went down to Washington. They had thought they had staff. It turned out the staff wasn’t theirs either. They relocated what there was up to West Chester, Pennsylvania where Tom and George had their business, CCG. And that’s where I started.
PORTER: I remember coming to see you and there was just you and …
RIKER: Teddy Zentz.
PORTER: Teddy, your secretary.
RIKER: It was myself and one secretary, that’s correct. We were three months away from the annual SCTE trade show, Cable-Tec Expo, and not one thing had been done in preparation for that meeting.
PORTER: And a staff of two to pick up the pieces.
RIKER: And a staff of two to do it – that’s correct. Luckily from my background with Showtime, I had also been involved in trade shows from an exhibitor’s point of view so I had some experience in what it takes to do a trade show. But boy, that was a whirl-wind learning experience that was. The previous years, Expo had lost money. We were about $50,000 in debt when I came on and pretty much had to decide at the end of the week, do I pay myself or do I pay FedEx and the phone bill.
PORTER: Or pay nobody.
RIKER: However, after the success of Expo ’85, we were able to pay off that debt and at least start our way towards recovery. At that point in time, we had 2,500 members. We were offering basically training as our major member benefit.
PORTER: And I think the dues were still $20 then – a year.
RIKER: They went up to $40 in 1983 so they were $20 up until then. I guess the dues were $20 from ’69 on?
RIKER: So we were still pushing training as what we did best. There were only two regional chapters of the Society at that point in time.
PORTER: Was that in California and Great Lakes or Central?
RIKER: Appalachian Mid America – AMAC was the first.
PORTER: Then they got its name changed, and I don’t remember to what. I think the other one was out in California.
RIKER: Golden Gate. As I remember, I believe from you, that there was actually, when you formed the Society back in ’69, there was actually regional chapters started back then that disappeared at some point.
PORTER: Yes. I think at one time, when I was in Kansas City, you had to belong. That was the only one. So they put you into a chapter, not recognizing where you lived, but that being the only chapter that you could attend, and ask everybody to start meeting groups. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to get into your stuff.
RIKER: No, that’s quite all right. You’ve lived it longer than I have. So you take it from here. Let’s turn the cameras around the other way.
PORTER: So you’re sitting in CCG’s offices and all of a sudden you decide that the SCTE can grow and the SCTE is going to need some growing space.
RIKER: Right. So we moved to a three-office portion of an office building and started there with adding another staff person to do the member newsletters and also to grade the examinations. So now we had a three-person staff. And the three of us planned the following Expo, which was in Phoenix in 1986, if you remember that one.
PORTER: And that was a successful one.
RIKER: That was a very successful one. We actually started with 600 attendees at my first Expo, which was in ’85. When I left in 1998, attendance had grown to 10,000. So over that period of about fourteen years, the attendance at that show went from about 600 to 10,000 people.
PORTER: That would be a scary thing to leave the NCTA and a secure job. We’re awfully glad that you did do it though, because it really was, as you said, you could become a hero …. You became a hero to the SCTE because you really did bring it around.
RIKER: But there was no guarantee that could happen.
PORTER: Oh, I know. I don’t know if I would have done it.
RIKER: I pretty much adopted a philosophy that nothing leaves the building unless it’s done properly, even to making a Xerox copy. Because if you’re getting materials from the Society and it doesn’t look like we really cared too much about how it was prepared, when you get the invoice for your next dues payment, you’ll remember those things. So I really wanted to make sure that people realized that the SCTE now was turning into a class act. Apparently we were successful in doing that because membership grew from 2,500 to over 15,000 during that same 14 year period of time. But not without a lot of help and a lot of new innovations on the part of the board of directors of SCTE and the staff itself.
PORTER: Now while you’re back there at the SCTE headquarters, you also got involved in the original Cable Center and Museum. Can you tell us a little about that back in Pennsylvania at State College?
RIKER: Sure. That follows suit with my other involvements – you work for one company and they ask you to help out another company and then you end up moving on to that one. So I had started with SCTE in late ’84, and in 1986 Marlowe Froke, a Penn State administrator, who was volunteering his time to The Cable Center, asked me to join their board of directors. I believe I was the only technical person who was on there at the time.
PORTER: I think so.
RIKER: I knew nothing about it other than I knew of the Cable TV Pioneers. I knew the Pioneers were behind the creation of this facility, and it was going to be a museum, if you will, that would document the 50-year evolution of the cable industry both from a point of view of technology and how the industry built itself up on business plans financially. It was also going to perform a series of oral histories, similar to what we’re doing right now, to get the recollections of those pioneers as to how the business got started. All of this was done with the intent of becoming an educational resource for young people in college who were thinking of cable TV as a career. You couldn’t go to school to get a cable TV degree. You could get a broadcasting degree. You could get a communications degree. But myself, and hundreds before me, learned how to work a cable system by climbing poles and that was our education.
PORTER: So as part of that Cable Center and Museum, I know that you also volunteered to build an actual headend at the Cable Center and Museum at State College.
RIKER: Good memory. The drive between SCTE’s headquarters near Philadelphia and Penn State’s campus in State College, Pennsylvania, was over four hours. One day, driving back from one of the board meetings there, I thought it would be really nice – since we have all this equipment already – that it would be better for students and visitors to understand how a cable system works if they saw an actual cable system working. So I came back and asked the SCTE board of directors if they would allow me to put some time over several months into building a simulated cable system at Penn State – which was supposed to be the future home of The Cable Center. What we did was to paint murals of the homes in the State College area but looking down at them from 22′ in the air, which is where cable lines are attached. Then we got AT&T to give us some old telephone poles which we cut in half and mounted them against the wall of this room. I then built a headend. We painted a tower on the wall, and I actually had antennas coming off from that. We also had a couple of racks of headend gear.
Then TCI, who was the operator in the area, came in and helped me run strand and string cable and hook up some amplifiers and power supplies. We actually had drop cables coming off the taps and going right into the wall with one of those feed-throughs as if it were entering the houses that were on the mural.
PORTER: So no matter where we go in the future, you can always have the claim that you built the first demonstration academy and you built the first museum because you had a lot of old gear that was coming in. I don’t know whether you distributed or serialized it or whatever, inventoried it. But I know we sent a lot of that through the SCTE, especially the old amplifiers and equipment.
RIKER: That’s correct. I was kind of acting as interim curator of equipment for The Cable Center while our relationship at Penn State was going through trouble and before we decided to move to Denver. So we did amass quite a bit. My favorite piece is a television set that was modified by Ed Allen back in the very early days. What they actually had was one of these Philco TVs which was about this big. They drilled a hole and took the speaker out of it and put a volt meter in there and attached that to the AGC of the tuner.
PORTER: So you’ve just got an open chassis type? So you’ve got the picture tube and the tester? I think you brought it to one of the shows.
RIKER: I did, yes. To me, that was really something to see how the ingenuity of this industry got started. Of course, there is much more that’s so exciting. People who come to The Cable Center will get to see the infamous “coffee can amplifiers” where operators… when the transition from tube amplifiers moved in to transistor, the new amplifiers were either so expensive or unavailable that some people took it upon themselves to get coffee cans and cut them up and actually solder little partitions inside the coffee can to keep one RF stage from interfering with another and mount those up on poles. From what I understand, there were 300 of those things. We could have a whole cable system run by the coffee can amplifiers.
PORTER: Well, being an old cable guy, I mean real cable, my favorite is the display that shows the evolution of cables from ladder line, G-line, all the way through to strip braid to spiral field to today’s modern gas injected polyethylene cables. That’s my favorite. I really get a kick out of it. Of course, I had a little to do with supplying and time-lining that display, so that’s my favorite.
RIKER: The first cable system I worked in used polypropylene cable which worked well unless it got water inside it. Then it basically became a short circuit. Then when I was out in California with TCI, we were just changing out from what was called a “discade” system. Do you remember those?
PORTER: That was Bruce Merrill’s Ameco’s discade.
RIKER: That’s right. Basically it was 10 cables about the size of an RG 6, each carrying Channels 2 and 3, bringing all those cables into the home and having a box that switched between the 10 cables and you got two channels per cable. So it was basically a 20-channel system, a primitive one, but it worked. The only real downside was when that cable got cut, instead of having one large cable to repair, you had 10 of those little guys lying there.
PORTER: The British would recognize this real easy because they had the original version of that and called it rediffusion over in Great Britain. That’s actually where Amico, back in the 70’s got the idea to do that. I know they put one system in California and they put one system in Arizona, I believe. The only reason I know about it is because I was working for Times Fiber Cable at that time, and we got the contract to make the multiple cables for the system. So you know … Now you’re at the SCTE and you’ve done all this work at Penn Sate and you find out that ‘my creation is going to be transferred’. How did you feel about that? All that work you put into it?
RIKER: Actually I was involved with that whole transitional period. My personal recollection of it was that when we were at Penn State, we were getting opposition from the industry because it was such a difficult location to get to. “Why isn’t it in New York?” “Why isn’t it in Washington, D.C.?” The Museum of Broadcast and Radio was being built at about that same point in time in New York and companies like Viacom were supporting that because of their broadcast interests. So there wasn’t much support for a cable center or a cable museum at that time in Penn State, other than the people in Pennsylvania such as George Barco and Joe Gans and other people who felt that Pennsylvania was really where cable got its big start. It wasn’t necessarily the first cable system, but certainly there were a lot of early cable systems in Pennsylvania.
A new chancellor came on board at Penn State and just couldn’t quite see the logic of giving up the real estate or how a cable museum would help the academic flow of Penn State. So we had a board meeting and basically decided that this was not going to work. The board at the time was half Penn State academics and half cable operators. We just decided to part ways. But it took about three years to work out all of the logistics of how to separate the project.
PORTER: Did you discuss locations during that meeting? Possible locations?
RIKER: Relocation? Yes. Actually at that time, I was building the new SCTE headquarters in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. I suggested that maybe we could go jointly and we’ll build our headquarters for our needs and on the same piece of land, we’ll build the cable museum next door, and share in the economies of construction, staffing, etc. There was a big groundswell to bring it to Washington, DC because part of the reason we wanted to build this facility was to show government regulators what we’ve done and what we can do in the future, and we wanted to make it easily accessible to them.
PORTER: In addition to C-SPAN’s presence in Washington. That’s a good spokesman so this would be a second spokesman for the industry.
RIKER: So Washington, DC was the front-runner.
Change of video tape
PORTER: So, once again you had a meeting about The Cable Center. So you know that it’s going to be moved and some discussion about Washington, DC, but nothing definite about where the actual location that you’re going to move to.
RIKER: Right. There was actually something else going on that caused us not to be in such a rush to choose another location and that was that it took us about three years to negotiate a break-away agreement with Penn State because money had been donated by the Pioneers to create academic programs at Penn State and money toward a building fund as well as all the archival material that were being held there.
Mike Rigas at Adelphia worked tirelessly to work out an agreement that was amenable to Penn State as well as getting us what we really needed. Ultimately, what we decided to do was to duplicate a lot of the materials so it could reside at Penn State and we could get the originals back to our new location – wherever that might be.
PORTER: So to vacate though, it took about three years.
RIKER: Yes. Then at that critical time, Bill Daniels came to our rescue. He said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you $1,000,000 to help you in this transition process if you bring The Cable Center to my favorite university.” And that was the University of Denver. So that was quite a compelling argument since we would probably not have been able to move anywhere without some transition money. So we started pursuing that direction. Then Chancellor Ritchie, who used to be chairman of Westinghouse …
PORTER: Group W.
RIKER: … and Westinghouse owned a number of cable systems called Group W Cable, and the president of Group W Cable was none other than Bill Bresnan. Bill Bresnan was now the chairman of The Cable Center. So between Dan Ritchie, Bill Bresnan, and Bill Daniels, the three of them got together and worked out a deal to bring The Center to the University of Denver. Chancellor Ritchie promised support of operations as well as academic involvement in the moving forward of The Center, Bill Daniels funded the interim process, and Bill Bresnan oversaw the activities as chairman of the board. That worked out very well.
I remember the day that it was all finally agreed upon. Frank Drendel from CommScope has a fleet of trucks to deliver his cable all over the country. It became more economical for him to have his own transportation division as opposed to hiring trucking companies. So when he goes out some place and delivers the reels of cable, he’ll usually back haul some sort of freight. He was nice enough, in our case, to help us move the equipment from Penn State out to Denver to some warehouses out here where they will stay until we move in about one year from now.
PORTER: Immediately after the decision was made that you would accept Bill Daniels’ funds and look toward moving to DU, I believe Marlowe Froke came on out to Denver even though there were no real facilities at that time. He sort of acted as lead man.
RIKER: Yes. Marlowe, who was lead man back at Penn State as well, had retired from Penn State University and had offered to volunteer his time for a number of years to see that transition through. Once the equipment got moved out to Denver, which was about 1995, he was then brought on as acting president and then ultimately president to oversee the start-up and resurgence of the project.
PORTER: And he had a temporary office, I believe, down on South Josephine.
RIKER: Correct. It was actually in an old sorority house. So the biggest challenge first off was to locate a second restroom facility because there was only one in the building for the women who lived in the sorority house. So we had to build a second bathroom as part of the deal of moving into that space. And at that point he started out to expand the staff. He brought on Beverly O’Brien as director of development, Sharon Fritz was his office coordinator and executive assistant, Chris Wera came on as financial officer, and ultimately I came on as vice president of operations and engineering – although that decision did not happen easily.
PORTER: Even before you get to that. Bev was brought on and immediately started working in harmony with Marlowe’s efforts, basically to get money, to get donations.
RIKER: That was her job and she was good at it. What we did was conduct some focus groups at the Western Show as we were trying to make this transition. The leaders of our industry proved themselves to be leaders of the industry because they came in and said, “I’m not going to give money to create a shrine for myself. We’ve done a lot of wonderful things in this business. We haven’t promoted ourselves very well as to the impact we’ve made on society. But more importantly what we want to do is to make the public aware of the future capabilities of broadband technology and hopefully interest people at the college level to go into a career in cable television because we do need to train the leaders of tomorrow.”
So as a result of this 3-day focus group at the Western Show, all of a sudden we were no longer building a cable museum. It became The National Cable Television Center and Museum, and the museum ended up going in the lower level and the academic portion was the link with the university: programs for distance education, programs for educating the public, programs for educating franchise officials and government legislators about what we have accomplished and our impact on society.
You look back and some of the exhibits we have in the building …. One is Cable and Information. Two quick examples that come to mind are 24-hour news. It never happened before the cable industry was around. The other one is C-SPAN. It was the first time we ever got a true look into the workings of our government. This is information that would never have been available without cable. Another exhibit is Cable and Entertainment. Now you can watch the Golf Channel, the Garden Network, the Food Channel, all these niche programming would never have survived in a broadcast world because you cater to the lowest common denominator and such programs were not economically affordable to a broadcaster.
So the wealth of entertainment that is now available and the diversity of entertainment available to the public is so strong compared to the old network days that we are erecting a video wall inside the entrance to The Cable Center to show the diversity of programming. It’s going to have about 98 television screens, all simultaneously showing live feeds of different programs that are available over cable at this point.
PORTER: So while we wanted to commemorate our past, as an industry, we wanted to accentuate the possibilities of the future. So that was the two-prong, basic goal of The National Cable Television Center and Museum.
RIKER: Yes. And the other goal was to become the world’s largest repository of cable and telecommunications information in the world. We’re collecting documents from franchise hearings, all the testimony in front of Congress that the cable industry has made so that people who are doing research on the history of cable television will find the most complete database in the world at The Cable Center. It not only includes documents, but also programming. I believe at this point in time, we’re up to about 3,000 titles of cable programming that would be available for review by students or the public. We hope to bring that close to 100,000 titles as we move forward.
PORTER: I’ve been invited to some of the board meetings and sat on some of the committees. Sometimes I think that the people who are just asked to donate money are getting the easy way out. I noticed how many various meetings that take up the people’s time who are really trying to plan and bring this to fruition. They’re really giving a lot more than just giving money. Do you have any feelings about that? I know that in your own staff, Marvin Jones has come over and given of his time to get his thing going. But there’s a lot of hard work that’s going into this. I think the people out in the industry don’t realize that it’s a 24/7. It’s not a 12-hour job or an 8-hour job. You guys are working almost continuously. The minute you leave one meeting about the actual building itself, you’re into another meeting about the museum or you’re into another meeting about …. I don’t think they really realize how …. There’s a lot of hectic …. I’m worried about your getting gray-headed a lot quicker, Bill.
RIKER: Well, your description is very accurate. As an example, this week alone, other than meetings, I have about only two hours to myself in my office to do the rest of my job. I had 60 e-mails sitting on my computer this morning. So there’s a lot to be done right now. We’ve got one year left to do it as the building is scheduled to open in late 2001. We’ve got to get exhibits in place. We’ve got to get the archival systems in place, the library. We’ll have five theaters in the building, each showing different aspects of cable’s impact on society, a distance learning studio capable of sending classes from DU directly to other universities around the country by a live uplink through AT&T. There’s just a wealth of educational programs that we plan to offer from the building, and we’ve got one year to get all those pieces together.
PORTER: Pretty hi-tech, multimedia stuff. I know we were talking about as people move almost like a Disney World application, so that as they move to different areas, they’ll start different programs.
RIKER: There’s quite a bit of interactivity. On the Heritage Walk, that’s the walkway that depicts the 50 year history of the industry. One side discusses the events that were important in cable’s evolution. The other side talks about the people who were instrumental in effecting those changes.
PORTER: How does it feel to just come off … This seems like no time ago you took us to a building at the SCTE when even some of the board members said, “You’ve got to be real careful. We don’t have a lot of money, and we can’t afford that building.” And you brought it to fruition. You came to us and asked us for building fund money. You went out and promoted the benefits of such a facility. The location that the SCTE is in now is a very lucrative business center. I don’t think the SCTE will ever do anything except make money if they decided to ever vacate that premises. It’s in a business center, as you well know. So you showed a lot of foresight. How does it feel to come out, just come away from putting the SCTE into their own building – from buying the land to designing and constructing a new facility – to give that up and here you are faced with the task of building what is going to be a very modern beautiful cable center and museum building. How does that feel? How did it strike you that, “Oops, here we … Deja vous, we’re starting all over again.”
RIKER: Well after 15 years with SCTE, I felt that a lot of my original vision had been accomplished. I had a ten-year plan when I got there. That ten year plan included certification programs, the international outreach, the explosion of chapters, of which when I left, we had 75 chapters around the country. If you were to add up the number of meetings they have within a year for each chapter, basically every day of the year there is a classroom session going on somewhere in the country that is sponsored by the Society.
The one area that I did not envision in 1984 was technical standards, and that’s become probably the strongest part of the society at this point in time. I was certainly involved with the development of the standards process, but that wasn’t part of my first ten-year plan. That became the last five years of my work there. But I felt that it was time for some new ideas, some new blood to come in there and take it to the next level. But on a more personal level, I felt that I was ready for another challenge. The Cable Center is one that I had already been working on since 1986.
PORTER: Hadn’t had enough already?
RIKER: I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. I’d like to tell you, as well as very many other people in our industry that this was a project that I’d been involved with since 1986, and it was something that I deeply believed in. Myself and Yolanda Barco, who recently passed away, she and I used to have lengthy discussions on making sure that the vision of the Pioneers translated through to the full operation of The Center, while also taking into account the wishes of the donors – which was more focused on education and less history. They’d been asking me to get involved with The Center as an employee for a number of years. Just when CableLabs first started out, Dick Green called me. He said, “You’re the first person that I’m calling to ask if you’d like to come to work for us.” Dick and I had worked together in Washington, DC for a number of years prior.
PORTER: He and I worked together at Times Wire.
RIKER: Yes, that’s right. Then I worked with him on the Advanced Television Systems Committee, ATSC. Then he went on to PBS and back into cable. I just wasn’t ready for uprooting my family at that point in time. Then they asked me to come out and do this job with The Cable Center. I still was kind of hemming and hawing about it. Then Dick Green and Marlowe Froke got together and said, “Listen, we’ll make you a joint offer. We both want you. So why don’t you come out and work, part-time for The Cable Center and part-time for CableLabs.” That, plus the fact that Bev O’Brien and Marlowe Froke had recently raised $50,000,000 toward the project when, for the first ten years they’d only gotten up to $1,000,000, convinced me this was going to be a viable project. Once again, I felt if I wasn’t the one to do it, somebody else would, and I’d always wish that it should have been me.
PORTER: The building’s come a long ways now.
RIKER: It has.
PORTER: You’re going to moving from the outside to the inside. What does it look like to you? You’ve got to take great pride just to drive down I-25 and look over and see it now. It’s a building – it’s not a steel skeleton like it was for a little while. You’re coming to the finishing stages.
RIKER: When I first took the position back in 1998, my job description was basically to take care of all of the technical equipment inside the building – to procure it, to design it, to install it, and to operate it. Soon after I came on board, we realized that the building design itself needed a lot of work. Mainly because the architect and the consultants and the exhibit designer and the audio/visual designers were not really coordinating. They were kind of designing their own things that didn’t necessarily mate with each other. The board asked me to take that issue on as well. So my first year on this project was to redesign the entire building and make it functional.
After doing that, I’m now back on to the Telecommunications Equipment Campaign which is an effort to get cable vendors to donate equipment that will be showcased in probably one of the most visible venues in our industry, as well as help us operate the facility. There’s going to be a full RF distribution system to all the rooms and throughout the building. Exhibitory – we have over 200 screens of all different types throughout the building offering interactive requests for information, showing videos about the industry, and biographies about the major players. Then, as I said, in the studio itself we’ll be able to emanate programming and transmit it around the world. There’s just so much infrastructure and technology to go into that, and that is where my focus is today.
PORTER: When do you think… You’re not at the point where you’re putting electrical wiring and so forth …
RIKER: Electrical is going in. Conduits are going in. CommScope, as well as Trilogy and some other companies, have been kind enough to donate all the cable that we need. So with the conduits in, at some point – probably early 2001 – we’ll be running all that cable.
PORTER: So you’ve got RF cable and fiber – all the latest technology?
RIKER: Fiber, RF, enhanced category 5, triax (which is camera cable) because even though we have the distance learning studio in one location, if we wanted to video tape a program that was going on in the Great Hall, we’d just roll the cameras into the Great Hall and plug them into the wall and they go right back to the control room. We can do inside remotes very easily.
PORTER: Other than more cash, other than more money donations, what’s your biggest concern as far as equipment, getting equipment in?
RIKER: The one flaw to our business plan was we expected to get all of the equipment for free. As I said, the hardware vendors in our industry have just been wonderful coming through with anything we need that is related to their business. But when it comes to the television studio or the 100 flat screen plasma monitors that we’re looking for, companies like Sony and Panasonic are not predisposed to give that stuff away. So we are working on a deep discount arrangement with them for that equipment. But we will need additional funding just to support the equipment that we cannot get donated completely for free.
PORTER: When you get it donated, if you were to get it donated from them, of course we’d give them good exposure. We’d make sure that they were acknowledged donors to our Cable Center and Museum.
RIKER: Absolutely. And the three areas that any contributor of any equipment will be listed are: their name etched in the doors of the headend; they will also be downstairs in the Great Hall on what we call the Contributors Honor Roll, an interactive scrolling mechanism for identifying all the companies and what they gave; and thirdly they would be on our Honor Roll on the web site so that people who aren’t able to visit The Center will know what companies participated and what they donated.
PORTER: And you’re going to etch some image of poor Dave Willis, who has given all this help all these years putting all this electronic gear, cataloging it, sorting it. I just wanted to say on this interview that I personally know he’s made a lot of effort to make sure that people understand this old equipment that they’re going to come through and look at. For a technician or an engineer from out in the field, it’s kind of fun to see that archaic old stuff, especially tube-type stuff and what it looked like back in those days.
RIKER: For your first question, I think we’re going to have a bronze statue of Dave so he’ll be standing there holding this …
PORTER: “The Lineman of the Ages.”
RIKER: Right. In addition to just having this equipment being on display on shelving, what we plan to do on probably a rotation basis will be to have a glass showcase area and we would feature: “The Evolution of Set-Top Boxes Over the Years”. Then you basically start off with an A/B switch to choose from cable A or cable B, go to the discade box, go to the old dial style, to the remote control versions, and all the way up to the modern digital set-top boxes which are capable of decoding digital signals and interaction through modems, etc.
PORTER: If you had one thing to say to the industry as far as help in the future, what would you say to the industry for The Cable Center and Museum?
RIKER: As far as what we need in the way of help?
RIKER: Well, certainly the immediate need is still support. As I said, the equipment manufacturers have been wonderful with their support of in-kind equipment. The leaders of our industry have been very generous with monetary support. But we have not yet launched campaigns for corporate memberships which would be for programmers and vendors as well as MSOs. We even have an individual share plan that we’re going to be rolling out at this year’s Western Show where individuals can buy a share of stock in The Cable Center for $100. So ownership is designed to go all the way from the million dollar donations that we’ve received from some benefactors all the way down to $100 from people who are comfortable giving at that level. We want them all to feel that this is their alma mater. It’s going to be preserving their history, and they can take their kids there and show them ‘this is what I used to do, this is the equipment I used to work on.’
This middle area right now is where we really need to focus upon – to get corporations to come in and say, “Yes, I want to be a member of The Cable Center, not only so that I can say that I support this project, but take advantage of the other facilities that are available to us.” We have a 200-seat indoor theater, state-of-the-art. We have a Great Hall that will seat 200 for a sit-down dinner or 300 for a reception. We have a Board room and several break-out rooms. Corporations who are based in Denver or just visiting Denver, could arrange to use this space in the building. We want to see this facility as active and busy as possible.
I also envision quite a bit of grade school activity as you’ve probably seen since you’ve been out here in Denver. Denver loves educational venues. My daughter has already been to every museum in the Denver area at least three times each.
PORTER: Got some great museums here, too.
RIKER: Yes, they do. I believe that The Cable Center will be another great destination for children because of its interactivity and its hands-on type of approach. It’s designed to be a living museum. In fact, the art work within the building are plasma screens instead of paintings. The content of those plasma screens is being dictated by DU’s School of Art. So you might walk into the building one day and see Renoirs on the wall. You walk in the next day and see Picassos. Everything is designed to keep pace with technology. We want to be constantly at the forefront of what’s going on at all different levels of The Center itself.
PORTER: Do you expect to do anything with the schools as far as training, giving educational programs maybe emanating out? Has there been any thought to that, Bill?
RIKER: Absolutely. Unfortunately, Bob Magness passed away before he was able to make a major donation to The Center. However, John Malone and several of Bob’s other close friends and business associates got together and raised enough money to name an educational institution in Bob Magness’s name. It is called the Magness Institute. That is the real educational outreach of The Center. It will encompass seminars, both for the industry or about the industry, in addition to distance learning education. We hope to have affiliations with at least one university in each state for a minimum of 50 that we’d be able to downlink our educational classes with a data and audio return for Q&A and interacting with laptops. What’s really going to be the major focus of The Center is education.
PORTER: And you’ll have uplink/downlink capabilities to take these nationwide or worldwide before it’s over with.
RIKER: Right. AT&T is supplying us with a fiber feed from its headend. That will be giving us upwards of 250 channels coming into the building for us to use on the video tower. Then we will have a return line from here to their uplink at the Digital Media Center for the distance learning studio. Then just as backup, we put two satellite earth stations on the back side of the building so in case something goes down or we want to downlink something that’s not on the AT&T feed, we’ll have that capability as well.
PORTER: And I understand the Barco Library itself, as a library, is going to have one of the greatest collections of not only legal papers and legal books dealing with the telecommunications industry over the history of its life, but that it will also be made available for research to legal types and schools. So you should have a pretty good influx of people in and out of Barco Library on a regular basis?
RIKER: Yes. And we are actually having a fiber link tied between The Cable Center’s Barco Library, the University of Denver’s Penrose Library, and several other university libraries across the country such as the University of Colorado and other facilities. So when you look up information on something, if we don’t happen to have it at the Barco Library, we can tell you where you can find it elsewhere. The Penrose Library has been operating to support the DU School of Mass Communications for many years, and we have a joint management agreement with them for the Barco Library so that they’re doing all the cataloging for us and integrating it into this large database from a number of university libraries.
PORTER: I’ve seen some of the unique planning that’s gone on. I know you guys need time to plan and time to work. I’ve been surprised. I think what’s unique about the planning that you’ve done is that you’ve separated the activities within The Center so that a multiplicity of activities can be going on for a multiplicity of audiences. They can come and see if their interest lies with old equipment or historic equipment. They can come and go. They’re welcome to see all of The Cable Center and Museum. But if they have a unique or strategic interest in coming, they can go as soon as they’ve seen what they wanted to see, study it, leave, come back at another time. So you’ve planned the use of The Cable Center and Museum to its fullest, it seems.
RIKER: Right. There’s a number of different divisions or departments, if you will. The Barco Library is one. It has printed matter, a traditional library style with bookshelves, and current periodicals. Actually we have made up annual books of cable trade magazines all the way from the beginning of that particular magazine’s history. Then we also have the electronic database that is tied to the other universities, and we have computer workstations to access them. The third area of the Barco Library will be video viewing stations where people can access classic cable programming from the archives that we have as well. So the library itself, is multi-faceted.
PORTER: … and oral and video histories such as this one …
RIKER: … will be part of that
PORTER: … of all of the cable pioneers that people want to learn about.
RIKER: And the histories such as this one will be available on video, printed transcripts and also on our web site. The interviews that we’re conducting can be made available to a wide variety of people through a number of different formats.
PORTER: Now I’m going to ask you something that you didn’t expect me to ask you about.
RIKER: I’m expecting that’s the end of the questions.
PORTER: Looking into, not in your future because you’ve got your hands full just bringing such a great idea like this to fruition. But I’m looking down years and I’m looking at the association between Denver University and The Cable Center and Museum. Something that you brought up quite awhile back in this interview – you brought up the fact that there’s no one educational facility to teach us what we need to know as broadband engineers today, especially as cable engineers. One of the things that the broadband industry faces today is that even if they go out and reach for a chief technical officer who has an electrical engineering degree – or he may have a mechanical engineering degree or he may have any of a number of engineering degrees – but there is no broadband engineering degree. I’ve always felt like there should be one. I know that DU a different type of university, and it’s reaching out to do different things. I can’t think of a better plan in the future than for DU to come up with a curriculum that would allow an engineer to graduate with a broadband engineering degree, especially being set in the center of the United States on a campus that’s very close to The Cable Center. It’s also very close to the satellite companies.
PORTER: It’s very close to digital television centers. We have one of the nicest ones right here in Denver – AT&T’s digital center. We have all the facilities here to send these people in a split curriculum so they could come into the classroom for a certain amount of time and almost as in the old days, when you had to learn a trade by doing it, send these students out. Maybe they’ve finished the first two years in a regular curriculum. But their junior and senior year is a mixture of training in the classroom and training by actually doing it. I would like to see the future of what you’re doing today lead to something like that. I can see companies like the computer companies, the telephone industry as we see it today, the broadband industry, all lining up to take the first class of these guys that come out because you have an engineer that you don’t have to retrain …. That’s one of the problems that we have today with the engineers in the broadband industries – we have to retrain them. They learn fixed frequency. They don’t learn how to sweep anything. There is no curriculum at any university, including MIT that you mentioned, that trains a broadband engineer to be a broadband engineer. This is not my interview – it’s yours. But as somebody who’s doing something so important, I hate to see it fall short. As a matter of fact, I’m writing a white paper about it – a call for broadband engineering degrees. If the aeronautical industry and the chemical industry and all those industries can decide that they have a need for an engineer, trained a certain way, I can’t think of anything more important in the future, as we see it today, than telecommunications and broadband communications worldwide. I’d like to see that. What do you think of the possibilities of that ever happening, Bill?
RIKER: Well, first of all I think it was a good idea we put another half hour tape into this machine here! One of the first examples of doing something like this was made possible by a grant from John Sie. We brought in six regulatory officials, also heads of the Chinese broadcasting consortium, to DU and they went through a very extensive multi-week course being taught by both the Institute as well as professors from the University of Denver. It was a very intensive class, lots of homework. They all did very well learning about the business of our industry. Then we sent them on the road for two weeks and took them to New York and showed them Time Warner. We took them to Washington and showed them C-SPAN, out to Los Angeles and looked at some AT&T operations out there. It was very well received, very successful, and something we plan to do on an annual basis, eventually with different countries as we rotate around. As far as the technical side, and coming from an engineering background and my tenure at SCTE, I couldn’t agree with you more as far as educating technical people to the level that we are right now trying to educate the business side of the industry. But the decision at this point in time by the Board of Directors is that there’s NCTI and there’s SCTE that are addressing these issues to some extent. Where the real goal in their eyes is in building strong executives and strong managers, and that’s where they would like to see us focus. Now, in the future, they would like us to branch out to encompass some of the other disciplines within the industry. So I think your wishes will come true through The Center. But because, as you said, there’s so many things on our plate, we’ve pretty much decided to focus on smaller chunks at a time, especially the ones that the donors feel are most important for the current evolution of the industry.
PORTER: The only reason that I brought it up was that I believe in it, and I think you do too. But it’s nice to know that there is a view – a view that board of director members and staff looks farther than the completion of that building and what goes inside it. You can see a goal of making the future teach. The future has a continuing goal for The Cable Center and Museum, and anybody that’s involved in giving time, money, equipment – somewhere down the line they’re going to train tomorrow’s engineers even better than we did.
PORTER: It makes me feel good to know that we’re not just building a building and we’re through once all the equipment goes in and traffic starts coming through it. We’ve got a much greater goal than that.
RIKER: Absolutely. We’ve recently broken up our organizational staff chart into two areas – one is operations and one is programming. The operations people are the ones that make the programs possible. In other words, the programming folks are the educators and the researchers and the archivists. But the operations folks are the ones who make the building run and give them the tools to do their job. I think that’s going to work out very well. Both Marvin Jones and Cox Cable have given funds to develop programs geared toward customer service. I’m sure that you’ll agree that’s another area that’s really been lacking attention as far as a focus in our business.
RIKER: Years ago, the way I look at it, cable television was an entertainment vehicle. It was not a necessity. So if you were without your Channel 3 or even your HBO for a night, it wasn’t the end of the world. These days, I bet if you polled the average consumer and said, “Which would you rather be without for an evening – your cable or your telephone?” they’d choose to be without the telephone even though the telephone could save their lives in an emergency. Cable’s more important to them. So our whole industry has to take on a new mindset that we are now a necessity to the consumer and no longer a luxury, especially as we start to deliver telephone and data over our networks. Then we need to have the reliability to compete with the phone companies. Along with that comes the customer service end because without the customer service side as well as, of course, the technical people to make it operate, it would be hard to convince people that switching to an all broadband network for all their services is a good option.
PORTER: All the necessities bundled into one.
RIKER: And then you might also have heard of the Jerry Levin contribution just a few weeks ago. That is going to be used to create yet another academic chair based in The Center, again affiliated with the University of Denver, to educate students about how cable programming has had such an important impact on society. Also part of that funding will go toward the restoration and archival process of classic made-for-cable programming.
PORTER: Sounds like you’re moving at full steam ahead, though.
RIKER: Double that.
PORTER: We appreciate you taking the time for this interview.
RIKER: Thank you for inviting me.
PORTER: I’m sure the Barco Library and The Cable Center and Museum appreciate it too. Thank you, Bill.
RIKER: Thank you.