Interview Date: Monday, September 22, 2014
Interview Location: Denver, Colorado USA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: The Cable Center Oral History Program
Schley: Thanks for tuning into the Cable Center’s Oral History series. Today is September 22, 2014. The opening stages of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers conference is going on here in Denver, Colorado, and nearby here at the Cable Center studios, we’re graced by the presence of Alex Swan, a friend I’ve known for a long time in cable—
Swan: Through the “MultiChannel News” and “Cable World” days.
Schley: That’s right. The early journalism days. I think of you as the Renaissance Man of the cable industry because you’ve done a lot. You’ve transcended traditional barriers and…
Swan: I’ve been very lucky a lot of times to meet interesting, innovative people who had a need for a dependable and industrious number two.
Schley: To help out…
Swan: To help out, whether it was the Local Origination Channel up in Fredericton, New Brunswick in the early 70’s, or the early days of CNN, through “Cablefax,” “CT,” and “IC” magazines, or lucky to have gotten into the technology end of it with ARRIS.
Schley: Let’s walk down that memory lane a little bit. I was telling you off camera that I think one of the unheralded pieces of history of the cable industry is the local—we call it LO—local origination chapter. And in 1974, take us back to where you were and how you got into that world.
Swan: I had been influenced by Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan and I was most taken by the video end of it, so five of us, after we finished with our Vietnam obligations around 1973, founded a group called “Founders Annex Public Service Project,” which consisted of five of us living on a hill in Northern Massachusetts, doing research, speaking at city council meetings to outline the benefits of a community channel and how it could be a mirror for the positive in their communities. I was on a vacation in 1974 in New Brunswick, Canada. We’d just finished the Cape Breton Trail and were on the way to Montreal, stopped at a campground and picked up a copy of the “Daily Gleaner” to see if there were any movies in town. There on the movie page was an ad which read, “Channel 10: looking for full or part-time help.” That’s all and a phone number. So I called the guy from a phone box, changed my shirt, walked in and said, “I’ve done video, I know how to shoot.” My experience then was with the old Sony Portapak ½ inch camera and deck; everything was black and white. But he, Marty Payne, was impressed and offered me the job of Program Director for $6,800 a year Canadian.
Schley: Thus was spawned a thirty-year career in the cable industry.
Swan: Yes. I accepted, applied for landed immigrant status, which took about a month. Then I was up there as the new ‘American’. Back then, you had to be able to do a job that no local Canadian could do. So I was installed as program director and eventually became my boss’s delegate to city council, the CCTA, and to committees to get that $.25 a month increase in fees – on top of probably about $7.00 or $8.00 a month back then. The video package was mostly just retransmitting CTV, CBC, CBC-French…
Schley: These are over-the-air?
Swan: Over-the-air Canadian channels. CBC-French was a little more risqué and they got PBS, ABC and CBS, out of Orono, Maine, I believe. So there were three American channels, three Canadian channels, plus Channel 10, the local origination channel.
Schley: This is what you got for your eight Canadian dollars?
Swan: Right. No broadband. No phone. Just a bunch of Jerrold amps cascaded from Fredericton 30 miles down the St. John’s River to the Oromocto Army Base. My boss had bought the franchise about 1972, moved down from Montreal and hired locals: an office manager, chief engineer and some kids to run around with a couple of black and white half-inch videotape Portapaks. I still have that famous Portapak “squint”. We got a vertical bookshelf that we attached to a handtruck because back then you had to have the video deck on you and the camera, the directional mike, or if you were lucky enough to be in a studio situation, you could pin a lavalier on and put them into a four-channel mixer and then mix it. So we went around taping peoples’ basement tap dance schools, peewee hockey, their peculiar hobbies. We wanted to be the mirror to this community so we took out ads in the paper asking for artists to come forward. We got involved with some Micmac Indian tribe members who took us fiddlehead gathering and salmon fishing and then back for a basket making demonstration. We inherited a lot of local would-be celebrities, people who were definitely not shy.
We had a guy called Tommy Thompson, who was probably the most biased play-by-play announcer I’ve ever seen. He’d say, “Oh, the kids from Minto messed it up again. They’re just a bunch of savages and the boys from Fredericton, they took it on the chin, like little men, but they’re coming back.” And Al Rogers, the editor of the Oromocto paper, who was forever railing against the mayor in Fredericton. We got to know Eldon Green, who had an extended family of local musicians playing guitars, banjos and tub basses and stuff. We’d go out to their house once a month and he’d regale us with two or three hours of lubricated storytelling, songs and sketchs. We’d tape them and then we’d play it for them, give them first cut approval; sometimes we’d go back up and they’d say, “We didn’t like that. Cut that piece out. I’ll do it again for you right now.” And then we’d play it. All in all, we did about twenty-five hours of original programming a week — by virtue of being the only TV station in town—because Fredericton did not have its own broadcast outlet.
Schley: This is the capital of New Brunswick. It didn’t have its own local television.
Swan: You had to get to Halifax or Montreal to get a local station.
Schley: This was real community television, basically.
Swan: Yes. We would also tape city council meetings. I’d be standing on a chair with the tripod all the way up, running hour tapes in the deck. As soon as the first one was up, one of us would grab it, drive eight miles up the road to the headend, rewind it, slap it on, and then get back with another tape to replace the other, before it ran out. We were always running out of our long tapes because they were expensive back then. So it was a matter of shoestring ingenuity. Our headend was on a hillside in a suburb called Silverwood, and it was snow-packed from October through March. In mid-March, everything would start to melt and all the water would just cascade through the basement, which is where our studio was in this little duplex. So we had Styrofoam walkways to get to chairs, we had lavalier mikes hanging off the grid overhead. The Jaycees used to come in and do a live Bingo show called “Jaycee Jingo.” They’d sell coupons, you know, little play-boards at the local convenience stores, and then they’d give out cash prizes to the winners.
So we did established local community stuff and then we went out and tried to enterprise some of the more homegrown talent.
Schley: It wasn’t exactly Hollywood but it was original and was there a business proposition behind doing local origination?
Swan: It was mandated in the franchise. It meant a lot to the CCTA that local franchise owners gave back to the community and in this case, by virtue of not having a local station, we were the only kind of outlet for local talent. When the Queen—Her Majesty the Queen — came to Fredericton—we were there with passes, like twenty feet away from the monarch of Britain. Blood, Sweat and Tears came to town. We were the TV station: just a couple guys and a Portapak. We didn’t even have color until 1976. We went with a Sony 8400 and then an 8650I believe. I remember my boss one Christmas bought me a color TV, my first — he said, “Take this check to Medjuck’s and buy a color television so you can see what you’re producing.”
Schley: It may have been a franchise obligation but to me it’s testimony to this very local place that the cable industry started to occupy.
Swan: And it was going on throughout the U.S. I was in the Maritimes, which was a fairly rustic place with a lot of logging industry. Fredericton was a very safe, mostly English-speaking area. We would do French language programming as well, to demonstrate to the CCTA that we were being a good corporate citizen and addressing the ethnographic elements of the community.
Schley: CCTA is sort of Canada’s version of the FCC.
Swan: Yes. And we would get up there once a year, even if my boss wasn’t asking for his $.25 a year increase. We would read three pages in English and then we would read two pages in French and then switch back to English and back again. It was interesting because it was a very bureaucratic city inasmuch as it was the capital of the Province. So there were a lot of proceedings that we were asked to tape and have as a public record. On the other side, we were also doing things like “The Gripe Show” — which was just a call in show to tell us what’s really getting on your case this week. That’s where all the logging truck complaints, the council being on the take, the mayor being a man “outstanding in his field”—i.e., a farmer—having no business running a city, etc. happened. There were people who took advantage of “The Gripe Show” but it was an unfiltered “let ’em have it concept — politics at its most unfiltered.
Schley: Were you on camera? Did we see Alex Swan a lot when…
Swan: By virtue of no one else being around, I did tend to moderate a lot of the shows. We had a Pentecostal church put on something called “Time for Truth,” where we would go and tape them. Three ladies and the pastor would be playing on this…it was like a Monty Python sketch. The guy was at a pipe organ and these three women are singing “Bringing in the Sheaves” and so forth. And then we would take that up and intersperse it with a sermon from the reverend and that aired in two twenty-minute slots, Monday and Wednesday every week. Al Rogers, the very opinionated editor, would have his ten minutes twice a week. Jaycee Jingo. And then everything else was pretty much specials where we went out and shot a bunch of stuff and then edited it or added music in the studio.
As I mentioned, we did things with the city council, we also did a show with the RCMP, and programs with the local university. We even started a soap opera. Fredericton was known as the “Elm City.” So we created this character called “Steven Blight” who was coming back to Elm City from upcountry. We called it “Blight in Elm City” and it actually coincided with a blight amongst the city’s elm trees—it was a big topic du jour. It ran for maybe six months or so. Once you start a project where people expect to see something down the line, you commit yourself to all sorts of really tough deadlines.
Schley: You were probably writing the script lines…
Swan: Not only that, but it’s frigid and frozen five to six months of the year and just really hard to get things done —I mean, we had an old station wagon. We’d schlep all the gear around and throw it together and put it up. Putting up a piece of whiteboard and all the things that are normal—this was a different kind of production era, so everything was done through chewing gum and string and stuff like that.
Schley: It had to be the greatest hands-on training you could get in doing video.
Swan: To make a production work on the fly and on the cheap; it was amazing.
Schley: You would parlay those skills, I guess, to another chapter of your career later.
Swan: Indeed, because you’re referring to CNN in its early days when there was not so much a lack of technology, but a lack of content and an audience, at least to start.
Schley: What brought you to Atlanta then from New Brunswick?
Swan: I left Fredericton in 1979 and I went to work at the Synapse video center at Newhouse School of Broadcasting in Syracuse. And I hated it. It was 2-inch CMX time code editing, and we worked with guys like Nam June Paik, Les Levine and Fitzgerald &Sanborn, people who were cutting edge in terms of video art, most of it destined for PBS. But Syracuse is a tough city. It’s frigid and it’s got the wind coming off the lakes and it was just a hard city to live in. About nine months in, CNN came around and there was a little note posted in one of the community centers: “CNN looking for volunteers,” A recruiter called Tom Knott came through and one week after I interviewed, I was heading south in my mom’s Monte Carlo to a $3.35 an hour job for a guy called Ted Turner.
Schley: This was when?
Swan: About 5 months after CNN launched. So this is about November, 1980. I missed the start of CNN in June. I was going about ninety miles an hour through South Carolina and a trooper pulled me over and said, “Son, you’re going to spend a little nighttime with us.” I said, “But officer! I’ve got to get to CNN in Atlanta to go work for Ted Turner!” or something like that. He turned around and said, “Really.” It was like the rains parted and the sun opened and all of a sudden he said, “You just ease up off that accelerator, have a nice day and say hi from me to Ted.”
Schley: Did he really? He knew Ted, knew the reputation of Ted.
Swan: He was big in the Carolinas because he was up there with his dollar-a-holler pitch. You’ve got a dollar, you come on my air, put your commercial on.
Schley: So what did you do for CNN off the bat?
Swan: They had a position called video journalist or VJ. As a VJ, you were on camera, floor direction and Teleprompter—which consisted of taking a carbon page copy of the actual script, running it down a long treadmill under a vertically-installed camera which then got transmitted to an upside-down monitor that reflected into the screen of the camera that Mary Alice Williams or Don Miller was on at the time. You also did playback. Playback consisting of—these are old cassettes now. You’re queuing up four cassettes in a machine to tease the first four stories of every newscast. Then you’re starting the second machine, rewinding one, stopping two, starting three, rewinding so that you had your first four stories teased and then running as the anchor intro’d them. That was the nerve-racking part.
Schley: I was going to say it sounds like a high-pressure deal.
Swan: It was. And we had PAs, production assistants, who were kind of the supervisors, a little bit more experienced. They would be running in between playback where we were desperately trying to keep up following the script, and the pit where the director and producer and technical director and audio worked. And then there was commercial playback, which consisted of running the bamboo steamer and Ginsu knife commercials.
Schley: You had 24 hours; you had to fill it.
Swan: We had to fill it.
Schley: I always wondered—I remember when Ted Turner launched it, he said, “We’re going to go on the air and we’re never going to stop.” It’s going to be 24/7. I think we lose sight of how revolutionary that idea was in 1976 or whenever he actually launched the network.
Swan: He launched TBS in 1976. And then you had ESPN going up in 1977—I could be wrong on the year I believe—but CNN didn’t officially launch until June, 1980.
Schley: So what was it like to work there? Was everyone very invested in the idea, the vision, if you will?
Swan: It was a mix. They had a few grizzled old UPI/AP type of assignment editors, Like Sam Zelman and Ted Cavanaugh, who was a guy who just lived news, local news out of New York and then he came down. Reese Schonfeld was the first president; again, a hard-boiled, seen-it-all newsman. These guys were the people who would instill the vision, the dream — in two sets of people. First the kids: the children’s crusade part of it, which was people like me coming in and just having to be part of 24-hour-TV. Then there were the mid-ranks. People who had worked in local television. Not the talent, but the producers, directors, technical directors, audio, video editors and so forth. Everybody kind of learned on the job at our end, at least at the lower end. We went into video editing and then we went on assignment and we were tasked with putting on hour specials for the weekend and so forth. It was a bit of a dormitory atmosphere. If a rainstorm came through Atlanta, the whole city would get crippled. Everybody stayed at the same motel, just down the street where you could walk to. You’d get out a bit and someone would take the bed and you’d go to work and so forth.. So there were a lot of warts and all but at the same time, ABC-Westinghouse started doing what they were doing in 1982 and we were in a big fight to survive then.
Schley: Remind me of the name of the short-lived news channel. “Satellite…?”
Swan: SNC. “Satellite News Channel”, was announced in late 1981, out of Connecticut, I believe. And then on January 1, 1982 Ted Cavanaugh started “Headline News,” which was an alternative to SNC and whatever we had at CNN was re-purposed into a more tabloid style presentation for Headline News. It had a big dish garden. Around 1982 I went into PR and we were hosting a lot of groups and individuals coming through, large Japanese business technical groups, people auditioning for talent roles who needed to be shown an hour’s worth of the experience beforehand. I must have shown thousands of people through CNN over a two or three year period before we moved to CNN Center.
Schley: They were interested in the programming?
Swan: They were interested in the logistics. How do you lay out a studio? How does the flow of news go from where it’s coming in, how does it get processed, how do you chop it up into components, when do you decide to go live, when can you afford a foreign bureau? It was about the same time that Ted banned the word “foreign” from CNN parlance. Everything was “international.” It was a lot of fun and most all of us deeply vested in Ted’s idea. It was an ‘us against the world’ mentality at the time. Sometimes it was hard to make payroll, sometimes corners were cut but at the same time, we were doing something else no one even thought would last a year.
Schley: You know, Alex, you saw a lot because you had a lot of roles at Turner Broadcasting at large, from video journalist to public relations and we can talk about that. That period of time—you just ticked off a few of the Superstation, CNN, Headline News—TNT was launched at some point. But that had to be one of the most creative periods of cable programming development.
Swan: Yes, but it was an uphill struggle all the time. Getting advertisers to sign on, launching in Europe: for the longest time, we were only in North America and only on cable. People would purloin bits and pieces every now and then, but it wasn’t until the tragedy of the Challenger explosion in 1985 that it became a global phenomenon. I was in Europe at the time, working on the Goodwill Games, another legendary Turner project. We were working out of the London office and within fifteen to twenty minutes of the Challenger exploding live on CNN, nearly every national broadcaster in Europe had all of a sudden taken CNN’s feed and was airing it live. Within months, CNN had licensed deals with most of them: ARD, TF-1, BBC, ITV, TVE, and so forth. It was that kind of point of inflection in terms of coming of age where they said, “Oh my God, this is happening, someone is doing it live, we absolutely need this resource to tap into when we need.” And that was the start of Turner Program Sales, when people like Sid Pike and Rich Hylen used to go around the world to resorts and hotels, and they’d take Blue Mountain coffee beans in return for a CNN feed or they’d go to Asia somewhere and they’d do some deal and who knows what happened. But again, it was a seat of the pants ingenuity in terms of making the rules. We weren’t breaking any rules because there were very few rules to break.
Schley: But the goal was to get the network out there.
Swan: Ubiquity of coverage. We needed to be viewed outside of North America. Because by 1984 CNN was starting to catch on; it was no longer the network of direct response commercials, with the butter soft like leather briefcase and “You can’t do this with a knife!”
Schley: I remember.
Swan: The Challenger explosion. And then, in 1985 we launched in London at the Dorchester. I was in charge of producing a live feed back to the “Take Two” program, with Don and Chris.
Schley: Don Farmer and Chris Curle.
Swan: And we had Sir Robin someone at the Dorchester and we were running live and I was on a phone the size of a shoebox, which had a built-in three second delay, going “OK! Count three! Two, One…,” cueing Sir Robin to speak so that…
Schley: The time sync.
Swan: Right, the time sync back to Atlanta. In 1987 we launched the studios downtown. We moved from the Techwood facility, which was an old country club, to CNN Center. Again, tasked with the launch and on a shoestring budget, we hired two local high school marching bands to come and kind of weave through each other at the bottom of CNN Center, while the guests and cameras rolled above on the balcony. We dropped 3,000 balloons from the fourteenth floor and had a ribbon maybe three foot wide strung across the entire length of CNN Center, that Burt Reinhardt, who was then CNN President, and Ted, cut to launch the new studios. This was at the same time that Atlanta was on its way to becoming an international city through the efforts of Andrew Young and later Maynard Jackson and other progressive Atlanta leaders. It really fit in into the “gateway to the world” aspirations that Atlanta had then. CNN was very much embraced by the local city government.
Schley: In those days, Alex, or in the early days there, was Ted a visible figure?
Swan: You always heard Ted before you saw him. You would hear his booming voice: “You go get ’em, Burt! Nice piece last night!” From time to time he would come through, and we had a lot of dignitaries visiting. François Mitterand, President Omar Bongo of Gabon, who brought his chiefs of army, air, navy, and about eight wives with him. There must have been a coup waiting to happen back in Gabon. Bill Clinton came through. There were a lot of people who came and Ted would come out and be present at those points but for the most part, Ted was busy making money and promoting CNN and TBS to the advertisers and, via syndication, to broadcast stations.
Schley: Could you sort of see in looking at the surrounding environment—how cable was starting to really gain steam as a medium in the United States and elsewhere. I think it was in 1987 when the household penetration rate finally got to 50%. Could you feel sort of the building of this, something bigger than all of you, happening?
Swan: In terms of the cable part of it?
Schley: In terms of your ability to now become a real force in television and to reach people in their homes.
Swan: Yes. I feel we kind of took cable for granted in the 80’s. Being in the industry it was like, “Oh, you don’t have cable? You don’t get CNN then. So you probably don’t know what we’re all talking about.”
Gerry Hogan, who ran ad sales, really put us on the map in terms of getting New York to buy into us. And it had to do with reaching that penetration point of maybe it was 45% of the country or 50%. It was equally about the firsts that CNN was able to knock off, the debates, the live coverage, especially the live coverage that really made CNN break through with Madison Avenue. Even after the proving years where we might have gone live too often or to somewhat sensationalist events or trials, we were still the network to go to when anything major happened. Depending on the time of day, there was really nowhere else. No one could afford to cut in to their airtime and if it was the middle of the day, there was all the daytime drama revenue to worry about losing.
Schley: That brought in a lot of revenue, advertising support.
Swan: Like they sang: he was cable before cable was cool. Plus Ted had some really experienced lieutenants who put meat on his ideas: Bob Wussler, Pooch Johnston, Henry Gillespie on the Turner program sales side, then Tom Johnson, I guess it was in the late Eighties after Burt Reinhardt retired. He came from the LA Times, so he brought a lot of credentials with him. Ted was very good at hiring the right person for the right job. A lot of people started their careers there. It was interesting because the cable part was so critical, the carriage from TCI and ATC and I’m forgetting what names they all went under—Continental, United Cable, etc. It had a lot to do with Ted ‘being’ cable and the cable MSO executives saying: ‘This guy’s one of us and we’re going to help him out’. When Malone and Stuart Blair and others bought into our purchase of MGM to launch TNT—which was 1987-1988 ….
Schley: And that deal ultimately imperiled the Turner empire… for a little while.
Swan: It did and it was called a ‘bailout’. But at the same time you look at TNT now, 25, 28 years later, it’s a moneymaking powerhouse. It’s not perhaps the best cable ever offered, but it was a real strong…
Schley: Breakthrough channel.
Swan: especially in drama. We made original programs with a lot of actors and actresses who had pet projects, and promoted the heck out of them in all the shows. But basically MGM was the backbone of TNT. I recall we got a three-year deal with TCI and others from which we got progressively increasing per subscriber per month revenues. That was the only way new cable networks could survive back then, via monthly subscriber fees. Nowadays you look at everything that ABC/ESPN is bringing to the package, it’s probably several $ a month. But just to think that back in those days it was maybe a nickel or a dime a month, and that was how you subsidized everything because cable advertising fees, what there were, were nowhere near broadcast rates.
Schley: You had mentioned the Goodwill Games and some people never knew what the Goodwill Games were—talk about your role and what that was all about.
Swan: Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics that were in Russia, and the Russians in turn boycotted the 1984 Olympics in LA. Around the time, Ted decided to launch the “Goodwill Games.” He put Bob Wussler in charge, who had been the president of CBS and CBS Sports. Bob put together a crew of producers, directors, stat guys, on-air talent. I remember some of the early meetings. We’d throw every name up on the wall that might draw an audience: Jean-Claude van Damme, Muhammed Ali, Edwin Moses, Carl & Carol Lewis – the last three of whom ended up working with the Games. We were trying to create an event that would take the place of the US, USSR and other countries – the Olympics match-up that was missing from those two boycotted Olympics. So they would be staggered between Olympics, for 1986, 1990, 1994 and on. The inaugural Games also took place three months after the Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine. A lot of us were sent over to Moscow to live in the Cosmos Hotel for a number of months through the January and February of 1986 where they turned the escalators off at night and everything was fluorescently lit. You’d go into the restaurant and be given an eight-page menu from which only three items were available. It was at one of the colder points in the relationship between the US and Russia.
We would say, Peace Through Sport and it was a really sincere, loss-leader project that brought out the best in people. And it occurred. In the Moscow stadiums, you didn’t see a lot of crowd shots because there weren’t a lot of crowds and I remember before the opening ceremonies, they seeded the clouds over Moscow so it rained all morning and stayed dry for the evening’s event. Gorbachev came. It was at the very start of Perestroika so relationships were just beginning to thaw.
We were all shadowed by KGB people in training. We called them “Kiddie GBs.” They would sit at every level by the elevators in the Cosmos Hotel in Moscow and take notes.
Schley: Keep an eye on you.
Swan: Right, So-and-So returned inebriated in the company of other men. Loud noises from 317″.
Schley: What was your job? What were you doing then?
Swan: Barry O’Donnell, Mike Oglesby and I did advance PR, talking up the Games to international Olympic sports editors at newspapers and TV. But there were obstacles. We’d go in every morning and sit opposite three of our counterparts from the Novosti Press and the Soviet Sport authority. And it would be a different set of people every morning. So you never knew if anything you’d done the day before ever counted. Their lead would start the meeting by taking off his watch, tapping it and saying: ‘Vremya dyenghi’ (Time is money). Then they would take us out and say, “OK, now where do you want credentialed people? Doping room?” Yes. “Announcer’s booth?” No. On the field? Yes …… So we’d negotiate all these kind of press credentials and then the next day we would do it again. So, to return serve a bit, we started a game with Novosti. The young couple they’d assigned to us would say, “What celebrities have you achieved in making come to Goodwill Games?” And we’d say, “Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth just phoned in their RSVPs, so they’ll be along next week, oh and Johnny Weismuller..” It was a game but also an amazing time.
Its next iteration was in Seattle in1990, very much a cable affair. We hosted a lot of cable’s executive ranks leading up to the games. We visited Indian encampments, toured the waters off Victoria Island, saw one of the earliest Cirque du Soleil iterations and the Moody Blues played at the opening ceremonies. Of course, The Goodwill Games remain more memorable for the stories that came out of it than the actual coverage or any sports records. It was a noble endeavor.
Schley: I love your behind-the-scenes descriptions but the idea itself was classic Ted Turner, right? It was grandiose, it was ambitious, it was over the top.
Swan: It played well on a stage larger than television sporting event. It was about politics and bringing people together. I remember we had a conference in Rome in late 1985, we flew in the European principal of every single Olympic sport—Greco-Roman wrestling, track and field, tennis, field hockey what have you. Everybody assembled at this highly protected hotel in Rome for the big summit, which resulted in a series of accords and memos that were signed. We hosted a party with rented out royalty, ‘Hello I’m the Principessa di Lavallo-Fiorentino. In what sport are you active?’ So that was the base from which athletes and athletic associations committed to participate. That gave it sports legitimacy in terms of each country contributing someone who was actually on the A-team. The key was to come up with a caliber of people who would give it a ‘like-Olympics’ authenticity.
Schley: I hear you recount these experiences at Turner and it seems like partly because it was such an entrepreneurial company and partly because you accomplished so much there. That company in a short amount of time, it had to be a career highlight like an enervating part of your professional life.
Swan: No one ever told us “no.” If someone said, “Here’s your marching orders,” we were empowered to make it happen. That was a lot of fun and very empowering to young people at the time. A lot of people made their careers or started their careers at CNN and in various adjuncts of CNN. I remember TBS Superstation was churning out money in the meantime, supporting all of CNN. On a Saturday morning, we’d be down in the CNN studios and from upstairs, you’d hear these big old thumps on the floor. Ric Flair tossing his arch-nemesis onto the ropes of the wrestling show, which was right above the CNN studios.
Schley: I didn’t know that.
Swan: Someone reading the news and all of a sudden, flinching, because somebody just did a head plant twenty feet above them on the mat.
Schley: You can’t make this stuff up. That’s amazing.
Swan: There would be lines every Saturday morning of wrestling groupies all through the parking lot in their red pickup trucks, waiting for So-and-So to come out, and then at the same time, you’d see the CNN anchors walking around them, wishing they had that kind of following.
Schley: What followed CNN and Turner Broadcasting for you, career-wise?
Swan: Still within Turner, I went into the Turner Cable Network sales end of it for the last four years. I was there, from 1990-1994.
Schley: And that group did what?
Swan: They sold the networks to operators. It was network sales: TCNS. Then it became TNS. It grew to incorporate the SMATV and the MMDS systems, and the first DTH satellite platforms, Primestar, DISH, DirecTV
Schley: I think DirecTV maybe preceded Dish network. I’m not sure.
Swan: So that was a big deal to expand the scope of the cable audience. Sometimes it helped to have Larry King speak at an event for an Operator or sending Captain Planet to a local mall on behalf of the local cable system—you’ve never lived until you put on a Captain Planet latex suit — after an hour it’s hard not to pass out.
Schley: Was it hard to sell these networks to distributors or was there great hunger and appetite?
Swan: There was always grumbling about an extra $.02 if you were going to add Cartoon Network or an extra $.05 if you were going to add something else. But by and large, everybody loved Ted for who he was and what he had done for the industry, so there was a lot of buy-in and personal friendship and relationships being played out.
Schley: I remember a Western Show—you remember the Western Cable Show in Anaheim—and Ted was signing books. The “Lead, Follow or…
Swan: “Get Out of the Way,” right.
Schley: It must have been an hour, hour and a half long line to get that book signed because…
Swan: You remember that NCTA show in Vegas? I forget what year, mid-eighties, and he was on billboards standing in front of the dishes with a guitar in his hands. The ‘He was cable when cable wasn’t cool’ song got made then and we played it at the booth.
Schley: Yes. I do.
Swan: Then there was the first Gulf War, when the legend of the Baghdad Boys were born. They were holed up in the Al Rashid Hotel in the middle of a lot of bombing and they reported live via a satellite phone from their room and balcony as rockets and bombs went off all around them. It made international stars of John Holliman, Bernie Shaw, and Peter Arnett, although Shaw and Arnett had already made their names. We would take them to cable shows where they would regale with amazing anecdotes. You really couldn’t have dreamed up a better promotional vehicle.
Schley: It was one of those seminal moments in television, American television. So you went on to do some journalism work?
Swan: I left Turner in 1994 and got hired by Paul Levine at Phillips Business Information, to run “International Cable” magazine, and for a while was editorial director of Communications Technolgy (CT) magazine. Then I got a really nice gig writing the international column for “Cablefax Daily” for about six years—something I really loved doing. It was an early tattle sheet of launches, programming, and personnel moves and then I started incorporating a section called “What They’re Watching.” Every week I would write about life and media content in, Lima, Capetown, or Phuket: what people are watching, and what they’re eating and drinking while they’re watching, and who the latest TV personality on the scene was and what media scandals were going on. And then the next week I’d do the same for Malta or Buenos Aires.
Schley: You were sort of chronicling this international expansion of cable.
Swan: Yes. Cable was huge in Argentina, Mexico, Chile. In Brazil, it kept threatening to be huge, but it was slow growing. Throughout Europe you had Liberty and UPC buying up franchises. And then there were pockets throughout the Asia Pacific, Japan, Korea and China were the three developed cable markets. At the same time there was a lot of interest in international expansion. So there was a lot to be written about operational issues about which U.S. cable was only theoretically aware. In Taiwan, you’re pulling cable through sewers with rats the size of dogs. In China, it was trying to make a business out of $1.00 a household ARPU. But there were a lot of American expats who went over and did it. I tried to chronicle their adventures.
Schley: It all really started with a classified ad from what you told me. You’re one of the few people I know who’s sort of made this transition or worked on the technology side of the business, too. Content, technology—it’s not a common progression…
Swan: It’s been an amazing industry to follow and be part of. And it all just started with liking the way a camera felt on my shoulder and taping bar mitzvahs and dance recitals…I’m not a technology guy, but it has been really interesting to see how the complexity of producing video has become so vastly diminished. How you can stream video over the Internet with a fraction of what you used to have in terms of color correction, time code assistance, etc. Audio has always been a bugaboo for a lot of the video. But now with the devices and gadgets available, everybody is a journalist on the streets today. Everything plays. That ubiquity and ease of access is something I never thought would have happened.
Schley: I think you have more video power in an iPhone today than you had with your Portapak and your setup in New Brunswick…
Swan: Those things were heavy. I mean, there was a twenty-pound deck you had over one shoulder and the camera on the other shoulder, and then you had this mike wrapped around your neck if you were trying to do color commentary. You’re on top of a station wagon standing with a tripod doing a youth soccer game, providing color commentary, zooming in and out, and then pulling someone over to say, “Gimme a little color.” It’s come a long way. Everything has grown smaller and more lightweight; I’m not sure the price has come down that much. But in terms of getting quality video on air, everybody is a producer or potential producer today. That’s the thing that’s astounded me most. That, and the ubiquity of broadband.
So from video content now to broadband, who knows what’s next? There’s the Internet of Things…Leslie Ellis always asks how many IP connected devices do you have in your home of her audiences…
Schley: The number goes up every year…It’s been interesting to listen to you as you have kind of recounted some of the adventures you’ve had. A lot of names of people have come up. Has the human relationship side of the business been one of the rewards of working in this industry for you, or what would you point to…?
Swan: You asked me to think about some of the things that cable has done for me in my life. It’s supported me for thirty-five-odd years for sure. It’s let me be part of a lot of really interesting initiatives. If I’d gone into academia or acting, who knows what would have happened? Nothing though, has sustained itself in my opinion like the cable industry. From truly humble beginnings to the most ubiquitous entertainment and information medium in modern American life. It’s been amazing. I think what’s really powered cable throughout these decades are the mavericks, the people who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who found a better way of doing it, especially from the technology side, who invented technologies that got around some of the transmission problems, that got around distribution problems. To be that kind of a person you’ve got to be able to break some eggs and rules. You have to be hard-charging, aggressive and visionary. We all know the names of some of these guys: Malone, Kent, Van Valkenburg, Ted, Bewkes, Miron, Myhren, Blair, and many others. You’ve probably interviewed a lot of them here in the Mavericks Series. Cable people always seemed to be a little rough around the edges, but a lot smarter on the inside. I’ve heard some of the early cable people talk about trying to get bankers to understand this. It was a difficult sell at the start. Some of the early stories when Ted was trying to convince advertisers in New York to buy CNN or, when his counsel at the time, Bob Ross I believe — found the FCC loophole that allowed WTBS to become a distant signal and go nationwide up on the satellite.
Cable was full of really, really smart people who took an obstacle as a challenge as opposed to a roadblock. They found ways to do something and then they did it. By the time people realized what they’d done, it was too late to say no.
Schley: That’s a great point.
Swan: Things got done because of sheer will and personality and then just the whole thing of cable being kind of a homegrown concept which grew in to cable news, cable sports. You go to the cable channels, really, to get the really exclusive programming. These days cable isn’t shut out of rights bidding, and we tend to win. We take over franchises that need rejuvenation, like the NBA. The company where I now work, ARRIS, just got into the NASCAR business. It’s like ESPN owning pro basketball or TNT owning the MLB playoffs. Bob Wussler always used to justify the price of live sports: “It’s unpredictable. That’s the key to live sports — anything can happen on any given day.” The price tag may have precluded cable from being in that before but it did whatever it took to raise the money and get a seat at the table. And then pretty soon, you were the incumbent and you owned that sport and you owned that audience and you had the loyalty that was built into all these mass consumer entertainment vehicles. And then you coupled that with innovations, the interactive part of sports coverage where you could go inside the cockpit of a car, you could find stats. Then the social media where you can chat with all the other people you know about what’s going on on the screen. “Appointment television” is now in the rearview mirror. The viewing experience is multifaceted. You’re watching perhaps on your laptop, you’re on your phone texting to someone and it’s running on the screen as well. But you’re also selecting an angle on the screen. It’s a bonanza for people with ADHD or who need a lot of new entertainment.
So where will it go? You have the OTT phenomenon and how cable is responding to that. It’s a lot different in other parts of the world than it is in North America. But cable has been really resilient. Every time something came up, whether it was a legislative concern, new competition from telcos, or the satellite platforms, or just overbuilding, cable has always found a way to reinvent itself to stay relevant and cutting-edge. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if cable isn’t as strong and as influential a media player in five or ten years as it has been over the past twenty. If you look at the flow of cable penetration, it’s gotten up into that, what would you say 80% penetration?
Schley: For wired cable at its height, close to 80.
Swan: It’s probably falling off a bit now. But the new generations, they may cut the cord but they’re still reliant on cable programming via other devices in their home. It’s still the cable operator who provides the managed service: the quality of experiences becomes crucial when you can get it from a lot of different sources. So I have no doubt that cable will still be a dominant medium when I’m gone.
Schley: Watch it happen…
Swan: Yes. It’s been really enjoyable and as I say, the one thing I’d say is I got lucky early on and I was smart enough to stay with the horse I rode in on. There have been opportunities to leave and take other positions, but there’s something about cable that has always been like living in a circle of friends. And even if they weren’t friends, they were people I really respected for how smart and resourceful they were and how they were willing to put their entire personal fortune on the line to realize the dream.
Schley: I think the cable industry’s been a positive force in your life, but you’ve also been good for the cable industry.
Swan: Who knows? But I’ve made a lot of friends and I’ve kept them over the years. And whether it was because I was a glad-handing Turner PR guy who took people to a lot of parties or a guy whose columns people enjoyed reading, or just someone who believed that PR stood for personal relations – with customers, journalists and colleagues. I remember some of the wonderful times we had with “Cable World” and “Multi,” including the memorable “Deer Park.” ski outing we had with our dear friend, Bill McGorry. These are just wonderful moments that we’ll have all our lives.
Schley: Well, thank you for that and what you’ve done and, like I said, sharing some of your thoughts today. I’m with Alex Swan for the Cable Center’s Oral History Series. I’m Stewart Schley and thanks for watching.
END OF INTERVIEW