Interview Date: July 29, 2019
Interview Location: Chicago, Ill USA
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
LELA COCOROS: Hello, I’m Lela Cocoros for The Cable Center. It’s July 29th, 2019, and we are in Chicago at the Independent Cable Show. This is the oral history of Ellen Schned who is president of EJS Entertainment and government affairs associate for RIDE TV. This oral history is part of the Hauser Oral History Project. Ellen, welcome.
ELLEN SCHNED: Thank you, Lela.
COCOROS: We’ve known each other for a long time. It’s great to have a chance to sit down and get your story. So thank you for your time.
SCHNED: Thank you.
COCOROS: Let’s start with your early life, where you’re from and what your educational background is and leading into how you got into the industry.
SCHNED: Sure. I’m from southern California, born and raised, and grew up in Simi Valley, California, which is now home to the Ronald Reagan Library among other things, and I went to college at UCLA. I studied political science thinking I would eventually become a lawyer, as I did. I also dabbled taking a few film and television courses while at UCLA because I always had an interest in the entertainment industry as well, one of which actually was taught by Peter Guber who was at the time producing The Color Purple with Oprah Winfrey. And the whole course he basically took us through script development, casting, and production of a major motion picture and that really did light my interest in pursuing the entertainment side of the business. So I continued on to Hastings College of the Law in the Bay Area of California and coming out of there I really wanted to combine my legal and entertainment interests. Fortunately for me, Renee Licht, then general counsel of the FCC, was interviewing at law schools throughout northern California. She made a stopover at Hastings, Stanford, Bolt, and I was lucky enough to draw the long straw and she did hire me to be an associate lawyer at the FCC and I started there in the mass media bureau. So I felt this was such a perfect opportunity. I just felt so blessed to be able to marry up my interests and to start at an agency. I also had a few offers at law firms in Los Angeles, but I really wanted to do entertainment, so I really wasn’t interested in going to a general practice firm. So when the FCC offer came up that merged both politics, law, and entertainment I felt like I hit —
COCOROS: The trifecta.
SCHNED: Yeah. So that was my early life. I think during my school years, both high school and college, I was still involved in politics back then. I was president of my high school, I was president of my law school. I got involved in committees when I was at UCLA, the homecoming committee and whatnot. And I think it all kind of, to me, felt like it was really rewarding to do service and to be able to organize things which created a betterment of whatever it was, the program, the school, created opportunities for others. So I kind of pulled that through my career. Even though I was a lawyer and then went on to become a lobbyist I’ve always had that public service spirit to be able to still give back and even more so when working at larger companies, as I did as I went on in my career. So early on I was fortunate to have attended some wonderful schools which prepped me well to get to the next level.
COCOROS: That’s great. So how long were you at the FCC?
SCHNED: I was at the FCC about five years. I started in the Mass Media Bureau as a young attorney who just kept raising her hand for every and any project that I could both get a hold of and that I’d read about in Multichannel News and Cablefax. Then it was Broadcasting magazine and some of the early trades —
COCOROS: Electronic Media.
SCHNED: Electronic Media, Comm Daily. And I would just read about the big stories, what’s going on with mergers and acquisitions and first amendment issues, this and that. And I was in the Mass Media Bureau enforcement division working on authorizing station transfers and whatnot and I just was reading about the more sexy issues that we talked about, learned about in law school. And so an opportunity came up after I was in the Mass Media Bureau for about a year and a half to interview for a position in the office of legislative affairs at the FCC. So I interviewed for that and was very, very fortunate at, what, 22, 23, to get that position which really did merge my interests of kind of pulling in the political leanings along with media. So there I was just really fortunate to be able to work with some incredible people. I think it was under the Dennis Patrick and Al Sikes administrations. And when I believe it was Al Sikes got appointed the new chairperson there were a lot of backlog of indecency cases that the previous administration did not deal with. They just kept piling up, I guess, because there was too much work load, or maybe it wasn’t an issue, kind of policy issue, that that chairman really wanted to focus on. And so those commissioners, in order to get sworn in, had to agree to clearing up the backlog of all the indecency cases.
So across the board Andrew Barrett and Al Sikes and the other commissioners, Jim Quello, they agreed yes, we’ll clear up that backlog. So when I heard about this I raised my hand and said, “I would love to work on that.” Because it’s First Amendment and it was sexy in my estimation. A little sexier than maybe the transfer applications, although those are incredibly important, especially now. Especially now with all that’s going on with spectrum auctions and whatnot. So then I was given literally, probably it was like a storage room that might have had 10 or 12 big huge boxes of complaints, just written complaints. At that time, they were still written on paper and sent in and I had to just go through them and pick out, in my estimation based on the definition of indecency, what were potentially actionable, and which were dismissible at the first blush. So maybe I ratcheted it down to 50 cases. I filed them in two big notebooks. You know, summaries, dates, filer, etc. And those got ratcheted and then I passed it up to my bureau chief and those got maybe ratcheted down to 20 cases and then eventually it went to the FCC commissioners’ level and it got ratcheted down to one. It turns out it was the Howard Stern indecency complaint for some episode he was talking about a Christmas party in 1995.
Now, I know Jana mentioned you’d get stories from me. I could sort of say what it was about, but I probably shouldn’t because this will go into my oral history. So anyway, that was the case that the commission took to trial, if you will, in the case of the FCC. They review it and then they vote on it and then they issue a notice of apparent liability if they find it actionably indecent, which they did. So that enabled me to get some profile at the commission as a young 22, 23-year-old lawyer working on such a big case. I got to present — did I present? I don’t think I got to present. I’m sure my boss or my boss’s boss presented to the commissioners, but I briefed the commissioners and their legal advisors, and so as a young lawyer I just felt like I had died and gone to heaven to be able to —
COCOROS: That’s quite an accomplishment at such a young age.
SCHNED: You know, at one point when I was on the eighth floor — I think the commissioners are still on the eighth floor of the FCC even though they’re in a new building now — I remember walking by on my way to somewhere and I see this very tall man with broad shoulders wearing a cowboy hat at the Xerox machine. I think actually I was going to copy something so I walked in and I thought wow. You know, I didn’t recognize this cowboy. It turns out it was John Malone.
COCOROS: In a cowboy hat?
SCHNED: I believe he had a hat or maybe not. Maybe I’m embellishing that part, but I know it was a big guy with jeans and —
COCOROS: Broad shoulders.
SCHNED: Broad shoulders.
COCOROS: Definitely the broad shoulders.
SCHNED: And I think I might have asked somebody, “Who is that?” or I might even have asked him who he was. Because you know me, Lela, I’m not one to hold back.
COCOROS: No, you’re not.
SCHNED: And when I heard it was John Malone I — you know. You know me also, I usually take selfies and snap a photo and at that time I didn’t. I wish I had, but —
COCOROS: I’m just amazed — I’m trying to imagine John Malone at the FCC, let alone at a copy machine.
SCHNED: At a copy machine, right? Well, that’s the way it was back then. This was like 20 years ago. So whatever it was, it was just a moment that just was indelible. That was just such a moment that was — And then another moment was when I first got to the FCC, one of the things that I was so excited about is that – Hastings, when we were graduating, my law school, FCC chairman Dennis Patrick was the keynote speaker at the Entertainment Law Journal banquet. So I had the opportunity to meet him about a month before I started at the commission. And I had never seen a picture of him before, I just knew his name. So I went to the reception which I believe was at Maxwell’s Plum down by the wharf in San Francisco. How I remember these details I’ll never know. And so this really handsome young guy comes in with great hair. You know Dennis. I’m sure you’ve met him a few times. He looked like a Kennedy. Probably the opposite politically, but he looked like a Kennedy and someone from, you know, the chair of the law journal introduced me to him and said, “This is Ellen. She’s going to be starting to work at the FCC soon.” And my first thing I said to him — mind you, how old was I then? Like 20, 21? Is I looked at him and I said — because he was so young and handsome with such great hair — I said, “How did you become FCC Chairman?” (laughter) Literally my first —
COCOROS: You’re way too good looking.
SCHNED: That was my first — yeah, you’re so young and good looking. That was literally my first line to my soon to be new boss, FCC Chairman.
COCOROS: You definitely stand out when you say something like that.
SCHNED: He laughed and he literally told me, “I knew Justice White.” Like he took my question literally and explained how —
COCOROS: How he became chairman.
SCHNED: Yeah, who he knew and how he got nominated. And so that was wonderful and then by the end of our conversation he said, “When are you starting?” And I told him, and he said, “Come on up to my office when you get there and say hello and we’ll show you around and just come say hello.” So I get to the FCC and it’s my third week on the job and another gentleman and I were at the elevator banks of our building. He also was a very handsome young guy suited up, very conservative looking because at the time it was a conservative administration, and I said hello. His name was Doug Minster and I said hi. He said, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m a new lawyer. I’m in enforcement. Where are you?” And he said, “Policy and rules.” I’m thinking oh, that must be important. So he said, “Yeah, we’re the political appointees.” I said oh, OK. And then I said, “Maybe you can help me with. I’m supposed to go meet Chairman Patrick, can you help me with that?” And his eyes bug out and he’s like, “What?” He’s thinking probably I’m making that up. I said, “I met him at my law school graduation event and he invited me to just come say hello.” And he said, “All right, let me run the traps. You don’t just like go knocking at the door of the FCC Chairman.” So he proceeded to call the executive assistant and —
COCOROS: Went through the channels.
SCHNED: He went through the proper channels and I did have an opportunity for 10 minutes to go to the chairman’s office in my first month at the FCC. Which, again, pinch me, I just felt like I’d died and gone to heaven to be able to get that opportunity.
COCOROS: Right out of the chute, yeah. That’s great. So you went from there to Viacom, right?
SCHNED: Yeah, that was another great story that I attribute solely to other people’s service and good will. At about two or three years into being at FCC I knew oh, I better start looking around because I do want another position outside of the FCC. So I went to an NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] show on my own nickel because I was only like a young lawyer. You know, I wasn’t going to be invited as an FCC person to be on a panel, and I didn’t really know much about these shows. But I was in the young lawyer’s division of the Federal Communications Bar Association and so I knew some of the other young lawyers and they said, “Sure, come. If you come you can share my room. Of course, you’re going to have to pay half the room because you’re an FCC official.” I said, “Absolutely.” So I kind of went on my own nickel to an NAB radio show of all things. Because it was coming up in New Orleans and I was in New Orleans anyway and I — anyway that’s too granular, but I went to an NAB radio show. I’m walking around this crowd of literally 1,000 people and not knowing really a soul and a very striking elderly sort of statesman person, I practically bumped into him I think because I was looking for a bathroom. He said, “Whoa, whoa, who are you?” And as soon as I said, “I’m Ellen Schned, I’m with the FCC” and he perked up and he’s like oh, thinking FCC, must be important. He goes, “We’re having a mixer at our suite at the Ritz Carlton, a few of the broadcast owners, etc., etc. Why don’t you come?” I said, “all right.” So then I went running back to Linda, the other lawyer, and at the time I knew the bureau chief. Larry Eads was the bureau chief of the Radio Bureau and the associate bureau chief. The FCC people knew I was there. And you know this too, Lela, you know I do a lot of events and I invite a lot of people.
COCOROS: Ah, yes. (laughter)
SCHNED: So I proceeded to run up to Linda and Larry and I said, “I got us invited to this event.” And they’re like OK. Because I don’t think at the time people knew the really like — back then maybe they didn’t know to — I don’t know. I was just too naïve. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I invite the six of us. We go knocking at this door and it’s a suite the size of this room, gorgeous suite, and probably seven of all the owners of all the radio station groups. Larry Mays, this one, that one, Ed McLoughlin —
COCOROS: So it was a very intimate kind of event?
COCOROS: Almost like a private event that you were invited to?
SCHNED: Right. So the gentleman who invited me, Gordon Hastings, who was the head of the Katz Radio Group at the time, he just saw me and his eyes lit up and he goes, “Oh, Ellen, it’s great that you joined us.” And then we open the door wider and he sees Larry Eads and the deputy bureau chief and he’s like — I thought he was going to fall back. Like they were so excited, so happy, that I brought all these FCC people. And anyway, that was another good moment because it was really a nice opportunity to — in both directions. The FCC folks enjoyed it, they spoke to some good folks there, and I looked like a hero not knowing what I — I kind of naively just said sure, if I’m invited I’m going to invite five of my favorite people, my best friends who happen to be FCC people. So that kind of got me a little noticed. And then I proceeded to — so Gordon became a mentor to me, Gordon Hastings, who was just an amazing gentleman. And he knew everybody on the radio side of the business. And so he had a table at the Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame dinner. That year it was in DC. And he said, “Come, be our guest.” And again, so I come and am like, what, 23 by now? And on one side of me was the general manager of the ABC affiliate in Boston and at the other side of me was some other general manager. Very important people. And then me. I didn’t really let the cat out of the bag yet that I really wasn’t that important at the FCC, I thought. But I told the gentleman to my right who was the general manager of the ABC affiliate in Boston, I said, “Oh, there’s Herb Brown. He’s chief of staff to Ed Markey” and he goes, “Oh, I love Ed Markey. He’s one of my favorite people and I’ve talked to Herb so many times on the phone. Do you mind introducing us?” I said, “Of course not. Let’s go over there.” So I traipsed up to the table that Herb Brown was sitting at, which was a Fox table, and I made the introduction and of course he was so thrilled to meet this station owner.
And again, that was a good connection. I just was happy to be the conduit. And then after that, maybe a few weeks later, and I said to Herb, “I’m looking around if you hear anything outside the FCC.” And he said to me also, he goes, “Oh my team” — you know, Colin, he had a whole — Markey’s staff. Markey was chairman of the telecom committee at that point. He said, “My staff loves you. They speak so highly of you. Sure, I’ll keep my ears open.” Like two weeks later I get a call from him and said, “Viacom is looking for a Washington person and I told them…” — Mark Weinstein who you might know, he was head of government affairs. He worked with Philippe Dauman. And he said, “Mark, look no further. You’ve got to meet Ellen Schned because she’s at the FCC but she does government relations. So as you open an office you want someone with both FCC and Hill experience and she has both. You’ll love her.” So two weeks later I’m having lunch with the head of government affairs for Viacom and about a month after that I got an offer. Again, that was just one of those things, pinch me if I’ve gone to heaven. Like what did I do to get so lucky to get this coveted position at like, what was I, 24, 25? And they were just opening the Washington office of Viacom.
COCOROS: Oh, perfect. So you were able to kind of — it was a kind of a blank slate that you were able to create that position and design it accordingly.
SCHNED: Yeah, and my boss at the time — I know you might be asking who are some of the influences of my life, but that boss in particular, Mark Weinstein, was just such an incredible man. I mean he was — he still is, I just don’t see him as much, he’s in New York, but he was not a Washington guy. He wasn’t in the Washington establishment so for him to have given me that kind of confidence and to bring me in to help mold the office was amazing. And he was just, you know, he knew who he knew and he liked who he liked in Washington. So he really only asked three people. It was Herb Brown and Tip O’Neill, Kip O’Neill’s son, had a lobbying firm, O’Neill, Athy & Casey, and that was it. And all three of them, I think, mentioned me because I had worked with all three of them. It was a real incredible opportunity and I will be forever indebted to Mark Weinstein and the Viacom crew for giving me that opportunity.
COCOROS: That’s great. So how long were you at Viacom?
SCHNED: I was at Viacom about four or five years. Probably about four years. I was there during the term of Mark’s and then Mark ended up retiring and then they brought in a new general counsel, but during the time — when I got to Viacom about six months later they commenced the acquisition of Paramount and Blockbuster. And it was at the time a smaller fish acquiring a larger fish, Viacom acquiring Paramount. And that was another one of those like pinch me, is this real, opportunities to really be able to help be part of this team in Washington. You know, hiring all the top law firms and it was just an incredible learning experience and I was able to meet some incredible people at the FCC.
COCOROS: Did you find it a culture shock to go from — I mean even though you were involved with the various aspects on both sides as it were, but did you find it difficult? Or not difficult but different, I guess, to go from the public sector to the private sector? Or was that just a smooth transition for you?
SCHNED: It’s definitely a learning experience and it’s definitely something that you’ve got to be able to have mentors and sort of guideposts. And I call it, you know, you’ve got to have people who have your back in this industry. And Mark Weinstein was one of those people. So I was so fortunate to get a boss like him with his temperament, with his sort of attitude in the industry. Because there are some CEOs that are a lot more, you know, they could be aggressive, the environments could be aggressive. And I worked in those environments too, but I feel that working with Mark Weinstein and just coming out of the FCC and having the opportunity when I first started out. I want to make mention of my first lawyer that I ever worked with who trained me in the Mass Media Bureau was a gentleman named Roger Holberg. And he too was just such a brilliant lawyer and one of those kind of quiet understated lawyers. Now when I went to the office of legislative affairs my boss was the opposite. She was very sort of loud and aggressive and just hard charging and a little nervous. When you’re in those environments —
COCOROS: Stress inducing.
SCHNED: Yeah. And I feel like I toggle between companies that have those different personalities. And as you know, as all of us know, you just have to adjust. You have to be able to manage up, down, and sideways in our career.
COCOROS: And there are different personalities within one single organization too and sometimes you bounce from one type to the other in restructurings and things like that, where you wind up working for somebody very different from somebody you just worked for before.
COCOROS: So you have to be very flexible and I always think empathy is a really important — it’s key to a lot of things. We’ll get into that with your community involvement in a minute, but —
SCHNED: One other thing on the Viacom piece that I’d love to — what helped with the transition was my first week on the job there was an NCTA show. And I believe it was in San Francisco at the time, which was nice because I had just come from California. And immediately my colleagues at Viacom — so of course they threw their party, whoever it was. I think it was John Cougar Mellencamp was performing and so they let me invite FCC people to that party, you know, the concert. Because I was new at Viacom and of course I go, “Sure.” So I invited Jim Coltharp who was bureau chief of staff to Jim Quello. I invited all the chief of staffs to the commissioners who all go to the show. Again, not knowing what I — you know, these are my people. But to the Viacom people they’re like, “What? We’re going to have all the chiefs of staff to all the commissioners and maybe a couple of commissioners to boot?” I’m like, “Sure, that’s why you hired me. I know these people.” So they came and again, I think that kind of started this movement by networks to kind of — of course being cognizant of gift rules and whatnot — to really engage and invite some of the policy makers to the things that we do in the industry. Because it’s one thing to read it in a brief and it’s another thing to see it.
COCOROS: Experience it.
SCHNED: To experience it. So I think them coming out to the shows, being on the panels that they’re always on, but then also coming to our industry events is so important. Or bringing them out to a company function to see things. Now I work for RIDE TV, rodeos. You’ve got to see it and experience it, especially if you’re making policy decisions that have marketplace implications. So that was my first foray at Viacom at my first NCTA show which, needless to say, was, again, just pinch me.
COCOROS: Another incredible experience.
SCHNED: Yeah, and it helped make me everybody’s best friend because they knew that I had access to some really cool things and cool things are only good if you can give them away, you know.
COCOROS: So from Viacom you went to New York, is that right? And joined Court TV?
SCHNED: I did. And I think some of the experiences I had at Viacom were both domestic and international and I had the opportunity not only to work on the Paramount merger and Blockbuster merger, but some of the legislative issues, program access rules, because the Cable Act had just been passed, 1992. So that was really valuable coming from the FCC where I worked on writing the regulations to then seeing them how they applied to companies. And so I worked with an incredible group of lawyers at Viacom who really taught me a lot about the industry, and they would even bring me to their meetings. I remember I went to some meetings with Jeb Palmer, your ex-boss.
COCOROS: He wasn’t my ex-boss, but he was my colleague at TCI.
SCHNED: Right, he was programming, you were communications. And again, that was just such a — it was really generous for the Sandy Ashendorfs and the Mark Rosenthals of the world to just entrust in me to bring this government affairs person to their meetings to help sort of introduce me to the company and to make government affairs such an integral part of the fabric of a large company. I think back then — of course it happened back then a lot — now it’s just a matter of course. All the biggest companies have a strong Washington presence. But I think one of the things that I’ve tried to do in my career is I kind of wear several hats. I’m a lawyer/lobbyist for my Washington days and then, yes, then I segmented to New York where I pivoted to affiliate relations at Court TV.
COCOROS: Yes, and that’s where we met, I think, initially. And that was going to be one of my questions down the road, you’ve touched so many different areas. You’ve got the legal side, you’ve got the government affairs side, and the marketing and sales and affiliate relations and even ad sales, I think. And then programming from a legal standpoint, programming and distribution deals and that type of thing. So you’ve really run — you’re a renaissance woman, as I like to call you, in the industry. So you’ve been able to just kind of go from one area to the other and make it look so seamless. So how did you — tell me a little bit about how you got a chance to stretch all those opportunities because generally speaking people tend to stay in the same discipline even if it’s within the industry. But you’ve gone to a lot of different areas and again it seems very easy and seamless when you look at your career, but how did you jump from one thing to the other like that?
SCHNED: That’s a good question and I’ve been active in WICT [Women in Cable Telecommunications] and I get that question from some of my mentees and others who (laughter) a lot of people want to pivot and they kind of sometimes feel stuck in one area.
COCOROS: Right, exactly.
SCHNED: They want to be able to broaden just for the sake of being able to work on new things and testing yourself and kind of spreading your wings. And I really encourage young women, especially, that I mentor, to try to do that when they can. But yeah, it’s easier said than done. I think when I went from Washington to New York I stayed in my position at New York as long as my boss did and then he moved on and so then they brought new people in and they moved on and got a new team. So I actually took that year off because I had a nice severance package and I traveled to Italy and France and wonderful places. And actually, I popped by MIPCOM. It was kind of random. I thought well, why not. Because I was asking myself the same thing. You know, now that I’m leaving DC where do I want to go? I’m so close to New York, probably that makes sense. I never had a burning desire, like some people do, to get to New York. I had a real desire to get to DC, but then after being in DC five or six years I wanted to move on. I loved DC and I still do a lot in DC, but I felt like it was a little bit of Groundhog Day. Like each year here’s that same piece of legislation that got filibustered and died last year. Oh, this is back after — you know. And it gets a little bit redundant there. But it’s still really rewarding.
So when I was going to make a move I took that time off. And this is a quick fun story about when I went to MIPCOM kind of without a plan or without a pass and somehow I just went. I knew enough people to get to one or two things. And so I went to something, I went to a panel. I forget the studio that was doing it, but anyway they made a brief mention at the panel that Pierce Brosnan was there promoting — maybe it was even back in the day of when he was still James Bond. I mean they lost me at Pierce Brosnan. Like I had no idea what anybody said on that panel after that because I was furiously looking through the program to see where that reception would be. So I made it to that reception by hook or by crook — I don’t think it was that hard — and I wound up getting a picture with him. Because you know me and pictures.
COCOROS: Yes, that was the first of many, I’m sure.
SCHNED: And I came back and I showed it to Bob Rose who we’re going to get to next because he’s such a big part of my life. And Bob Rose, I said, “Oh my God, look at this.” And the year was 2006. He said, “Why don’t you do a holiday card that says have a double 007?” I said, “Oh my God, that’s such a great idea.” So I did and I had one of my designer friends do it and they had the 007 — I thought I was going to get shut down for copyright —
COCOROS: Copyright infringement?
SCHNED: Like oh my God, I have to see that no one from the studio sees this. And I’m like it’s only a holiday card, but I did send it out pretty broadly. And to this day Nomi Bergman still says, “I still have that holiday card on my refrigerator with you and Pierce Brosnan” and of course other people said, “Did you superimpose that picture?” But I think it’s that kind of risk taking where, you know, I didn’t have a plan at the NAB or a pass, I didn’t have a plan or a pass to MIPCOM, but sometimes you’ve just got to go. You’ve just got to hit the button and go. And in these interim times you’ve got to just do it on your own dime as well. And I think for a lot of people in the industry who transition, whether they’re junior or even senior, that’s a scary thought because we’re so used to working for companies that cover expenses and whatnot. But you know, you’re investing in yourself.
COCOROS: It’s like coloring inside the lines because you’re so conditioned to do it that way and a lot of times it doesn’t — you have to shake things up a little bit to move forward.
SCHNED: Yeah, because you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what you might be missing. So I took that nice wonderful trip and then I met another wonderful person at one of the shows who I never knew before but he was good friends of Sandy Ashendorf who introduced him to me. That was Stuart Lipson. You know Stuart?
COCOROS: I do. I know of him, yes.
SCHNED: And he’s just another one of those kind, generous souls who we had a few conversations and he said, “Why don’t you go talk to Bob Rose at Court TV? They’re looking to hire some people.” I said all right, so I did. And Bob is another one of those incredible professionals with a real easygoing temperament. And because I tend to be a little bouncing off walls, kind of hard charging, high strung, which other people have called me — actually one of my people who worked for me once called me a hurricane with a brain.
COCOROS: (laughter) I like that.
SCHNED: So I went to go meet Bob Rose and I told him about some of the things I had worked on at Viacom and this and that. And I think in this industry you have to find that one person who’s willing to take a chance with you if you’re not in the lane already.
SCHNED: With 15 years’ experience in that specific thing. You’ve got to find someone who sees qualities in you that are transferable. And he kind of saw that because at the time Court TV, they burst onto the scene with the OJ trial and then afterwards they plummeted because there wasn’t a sensational trial. So they got dropped by Cox and a lot of big distributors. They needed to rebuild their team, and I think when you’re in a team that has a lot of drops it’s such a — you lose, not momentum — you lose momentum but you also lose morale.
COCOROS: It’s hard to keep the level up.
SCHNED: Yeah, that energy level. So I think he brought me in to just sort of inject them with newness. And I had just come off of doing this incredible reception at Viacom on the Hill. Was it with Viacom? Anyway, I had experience on the Hill. Oh, I know what it was. There was an amazing person that worked for Court TV that did public affairs named Scoot McPherson.
COCOROS: I remember Scoot.
SCHNED: Incredible programs. And he did a program called “Choices or Consequences” and he would go out to communities and he would involve the cable operator and community leaders and he’d do this four, five camera shoot and he’d produce a show on an important topic in that community, whether it’s immigration or drugs. And this targeted high school kids. It was incredible. So I came in and I said, “OK, why don’t we do one of those receptions. Let’s do a reception for ‘Choices and Consequences’ in Washington, DC.” These have — that’s where I had just come from. I always kind of build on what I just came from because that’s what you know at the time. He was like, “All right, that sounds good, let’s do it.” So we did and I’m also about adding star power. You know that a little celebrity sells. But coming from the small network groups I always worked for, we didn’t have a lot of big celebrities so I partnered with a group called The Creative Coalition. At the time Billy Baldwin was their chairperson and Griffin Dunne who’s Dominick Dunne’s son and others. So I said, “We’re doing this program called ‘Choices or Consequences’ in Washington. We’re going to the Hill. We’ve got all these members we’ve invited. Will you come and be a partner on it?” And they did. And I also did a little research and found that Lynda Carter lived in DC so I invited her. Or maybe they invited her. Anyway, I had these random group of celebrities, Lynda Carter, Billy Baldwin, Griffin Dunne, and we filled up the LBJ room in the Capitol within moments when they arrived. And it was such an incredible — and I think we did it at the time also to coincide with the CTPAA [Cable Television Public Affairs Association] conference, Steve Jones’ event. So we already had all the cable operators in town that did government and public affairs for that conference. So again, when you work for smallish independents you have to figure out how to do things smartly and cheaply because you don’t have the big budgets.
COCOROS: And still make an impact.
SCHNED: Strategically, yeah. So this was my first foray and then of course Henry Schleiff was our CEO so we invited Henry and God knows we got — I mean John McCain showed up, Ed Markey showed up. We probably had 15, 20 members that came through that room and Henry was like a kid — I mean everyone was so happy at the turnout, at the ambiance, at the effect. And it was just sort of all — that was knock wood, I’m proud of that event.
COCOROS: I was going to ask you, since you’ve been involved in so many different community affairs and social responsibility initiatives, kind of some of your favorites. And I was lucky enough to be involved in “Choices and Consequences” also, from the other side, from the MSO side. I thought that was a phenomenal program that really helped, I think, even in the local communities. It was a big deal. And then partnering with the middle school association and doing all of the work with bullying and I thought that was a really great one too. So Court TV did a lot of — I mean because of you and because of Scoot initially, he was really —
SCHNED: It was the whole team. Henry believed in it, Bob Rose believed in it.
COCOROS: Exactly. It was across the board and it was great because it was very visible to the community and something that the community really cared about. It was an issue that the community cared about. So that really helped, I think, helped the reputation of the local cable company as well.
SCHNED: Yeah. I think that that is — so basically that’s how I got my job at Court. They hired me at first as a consultant and I did that event. You put it nicely, that I’m a renaissance woman. Some would say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. But I kind of like — I’ve always been known to be a hybrid rep in the industry, if you will. It’s sometimes hard to define exactly. Are you an affiliate rep, are you government affairs, are you a lobbyist, are you a lawyer?
COCOROS: And you can say yes, yes, yes, and yes.
SCHNED: Correct. Because I try to pull through lines whether straight or dotted through all of the above. Because, as we all know, like even as you mentioned the story about the cable operators getting involved in public affairs, to be successful, especially with competition, you’ve got to ingratiate yourself to your customer. You’ve got to show that you have a heart and a soul, it’s not just a bill every month, it’s not just content on the — And so that’s why so many cable companies have stepped up and they’ve got such a robust public affairs effort, community giving. You know, from Comcast Cares Day to Charter which does amazing things, especially since the new Charter. But that’s been my strength and my goal and where I really enjoy giving back is, I really pull through. So I’ve been hired to do the affiliate relations work, but I pull in a public affairs element to it by creating public affairs campaigns that help build leverage. Because we don’t have necessarily the “Game of Thrones” show to give us — or the “Mad Men” or whatever the big hit show is in some of these little networks to give you that must-have content leverage. So I pulled in public affairs. Whenever I do anything in public affairs I’ll always invite a government official if I can, especially in Washington, because it’s an alumni back there. Whenever I go to Washington people still think I — some people still remember me.
COCOROS: They think you’re still there?
SCHNED: So Senator Markey always comes to my events. Congressman Ted Deutsch comes to the events. And it’s good for them. They love meeting members of our industry at these kind of functions rather than just at a hearing where they’re being grilled. Because then they’re also seeing —
COCOROS: It’s a kind of a rounds it out — rounds out through your person, you’re being a human.
SCHNED: Yeah. And the cable business has to have a human side to it and that’s why cable sometimes trounces national services because we have that local presence. So that’s been sort of my pull-through on all those elements. So my core, depending on the job, might be government relations and then my dotted line is affiliated relations. Or my core might be affiliate relations where I’ve headed up distribution, but I still always kept one foot in the government and public affairs arena and I’ve tried to create those kinds of promotions and campaigns for every network I’ve been at.
COCOROS: So let’s move up. You worked for Ovation for a while, right? And then you started your own business and your own consultancy. Can you just kind of talk through what you’re working on now?
SCHNED: I think one of the other things that — of course I’ve worked for some wonderful large companies, Viacom, CBS, CBS College Sports, but I’ve also worked for a lot of independents. So I’ve worked for Ovation and that brought me back to California. And like many of us, I came back to California because I had an elderly mother that I was away from for many years so it was really rewarding to be back. So the stars were in alignment there to go back to LA at that point, having spent an incredible 15 years between DC and New York. So I’m back in LA and I had the fortunate opportunity to meet Charles Segars who’s the CEO of Ovation who’s an amazing individual. I mean I strongly recommend doing on oral history on him if you haven’t yet. I can’t even begin to sing his praises because he’s incredible. But he was another one of those pinch me because this guy’s so amazing, I’d love to come work with him. And he was the CEO of Ovation, but he’s very political. He does a lot in Washington, he does a lot of lobbying for the arts because Ovation is an arts and culture network.
So I worked there for several years running distribution and then I transitioned to a consultant for Ovation and then I started my own practice. Had several networks that approached me and operators to continue to create — I think one of the things I started evolving into, also, is I became a representative of independent networks and independent voices. Not only trying to help them get distribution, but also as a voice in Washington, that the independent voice is really important. Because as we have more and more mergers and consolidation we might have four to five companies in 10 years and that’s it. So I really amassed a handful of independent network clients and I’m doing a lot of what I’ve been doing which is helping them get distribution by using government and public affairs offerings to help enhance their value. And my newest client is RIDE TV who is an equestrian channel, equestrian sports and lifestyle. And when I met them I just — their culture and their personalities, both as individuals and a company, is like none other I’ve been around in the industry. First of all, they’re from Fort Worth, Texas and I love — and Trace Adkins is here at the cable show in Chicago and I love country music. So I just loved them at the start because RIDE TV, even though equestrian is close enough to country, and they’re just really good people from their president, Craig Morris, to their CEO, Michael Fletcher, to my colleague Serene Fletcher who I’m training to be a government affairs wizard. And she’s smart as a whip and she’s amazing.
So that’s been a real great opportunity, you know, representing a handful of independent networks to now kind of focusing on one. And knock wood, it’s a good problem to have, to have too many clients, to be overloaded, to have to sort of give away some of my children to other reps and really focus on RIDE TV. And RIDE TV is just on the move. They’re creative, they do a lot for the community. They do equine therapy. They have all kinds of, you know, become expert now on rodeos and whatnot. So that’s kind of where I’ve settled into is being sort of a voice of the independent networks and I still do a lot in Washington with them. We’re creating independent programming and rural summits to inform members of Congress what these issues are that are important for independent networks so that we don’t get left in the dust with deregulation and mergers and acquisitions. And that’s where I’ve kind of netted out.
COCOROS: That’s great. So where do you see the industry headed at this point? From your perspective. Your many different perspectives.
SCHNED: I think that cable is still going to continue to thrive and be strong. They’re going to continue to adapt and change because there are a lot of smart people. Viewers want their content how they want it, when they want it, where they want it. Cable gets it. They have incredible brands, they have incredible infrastructure. I think it’s going to continue to evolve and I think the business settings are going to dominate hopefully versus regulation. I think the consolidation is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a little scary because there’s a lot of behemoths out there and it becomes big cable fighting big broadcast fighting big OTT fighting big Facebook. Not fighting, just we’re all kind of fighting for the same customers and their dollars. But I think that it’s going to be a balance. As an independent rep I caution the government officials to be mindful and to make sure that independent networks aren’t thrown under the bus with consolidation, that there’s still room at the table for them. So I think consolidation is going to continue. I think evolution to digital is going to continue fast and furiously. We’re not going to go back in time. We’re going to keep going forward and I think a lot of smart people out there are going to keep thinking of the next big thing. Which, interestingly enough, is sometimes the next little thing. I think any one of us can come up with — and millennials are making money hand over fist leveraging the internet and social media. So I’m excited to see what — and programming is better than ever. We could even end in the words of Sumner Redstone, content is king. I think as long as independent or larger networks keep coming up, or individuals like you and me, come up with —
SCHNED: — ideas —
COCOROS: Content ideas.
SCHNED: Yeah. It’s just a matter of being able to get it out into the universe and have access to the right cable operators and distributors and Netflixes and Amazons and —
COCOROS: And I know just the person to introduce them.
SCHNED: All right, yes. I’m available. EJS Entertainment.
COCOROS: All right. Well, thank you very much, Ellen. Thank you for your time. This was really a great interview. I always enjoy talking to you.
SCHNED: You’re one of the best in the industry, Lela. I’ve always loved you. I’ve always admired you from afar. When I got the opportunity to meet you in person back when you were at — your TCI days, I believe —
SCHNED: I just, you were such a de facto mentor to me, just watching you in action.
COCOROS: Oh, thank you. All right, well, thank you for your time.
SCHNED: Thank you.
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