Interview Date: Tuesday July 27, 1999
Interview Location: Denver, CO
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Collection: Hauser Collection
KELLER: This is the video history of Gail F. Sermersheim, cable pioneer: Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Affiliate Relations with Home Box Office in Atlanta: organizer of Women in Cable, Inc., now Women in Cable and Telecommunications, Inc.; co-founder of CTAM, that is the Cable Telecommunications Association of Marketing; and woman extraordinaire. It’s a great, great pleasure to be able to do the oral history of Gail and we are at the Teatro Hotel in downtown Denver on July 27th, 1999. We’re here on the occasion of the groundbreaking ceremonies for The National Television Center and Museum. This video history is made possible by a grant from The Gustave Hauser Foundation as part of the oral history program of The National Cable Television Center and Museum. The interviewer is Jim Keller. Gail, tell us a little bit about your early history before you got into cable television.
SERMERSHEIM: Well, actually Jim, if I’d been born just a few years later, one could say I spent my whole life in cable television, but as it turns out, it’s just been the vast majority of my life. My parents started in the cable business in the early ’60’s in a small town in southern Indiana. So I made my first cable sale and took my first trouble call before I got out of high school.
KELLER: What year was this?
SERMERSHEIM: They started in the early ’60’s actually. They had the first transistorized system in Indiana and the company they worked for was Telesis. They were actually minority owners in that system. My dad was the manager and mother was bookkeeper and they continued in those capacities for almost twenty years.
KELLER: The major principals of that company were Dick Shively and Ferris Traylor, is that correct?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, you’re absolutely right.
KELLER: Names that are very well known to cable pioneers.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, people that I’m eternally grateful to for getting me started in this great business.
KELLER: Were your folks the local association for the Shively group and for Telesis?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes. Dick came to Jasper, Indiana, again in the early ’60’s, wanting to get the franchise and my dad was a local businessman.
KELLER: I see.
SERMERSHEIM: He had a retail store there, they sold TV’s and appliances, and was also on the city council and so he was the person Dick came to see about getting the franchises for Jasper and Huntingburg and as was the custom in those days, when you were involved early on you usually became a minority partner in the business.
KELLER: Did your dad continue to operate the television shop after he took over as manager?
SERMERSHEIM: Only for about two years, I think, until construction was completed and the system was really launched and on its way and could afford to pay him a salary.
KELLER: Then you went to the University of Indiana in Bloomington. You worked in the system at that time also, right?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, because of my parents’ connection with Telesis, I got acquainted with the management of that company and they were building the system in Bloomington, Indiana when I was going to school there. And so they most kindly offered me a part-time job as a receptionist at $1.70 an hour, I believe it was. It didn’t take very long, I think I lasted as the receptionist for about a month, and then I started working with door-to-door sales crews covering the community as the cable system was started and went on from there into more marketing.
KELLER: Did you knock on doors yourself?
SERMSHEIM A little bit. Mostly, I just went out and hired the guys. It’s strange enough, now that I think back on it; those crews were all male. But I hired the guys and helped train them and kept them motivated and keep the books and everything for them. After doing that in Bloomington for about a year, Telesis was launching a number of other systems throughout Indiana so I sort of became the Indiana sales manager and opened the systems. Again, I worked the door-to-door sales crews, wrote advertising, did grand openings and promotions and sort of learned as I was doing because my degree actually was in photo journalism, so I was totally unprepared for this sales and marketing work that I was doing but it seemed to come fairly naturally.
KELLER: And you’ve made a career of it.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, and I’ve never looked back as they say.
KELLER: How did you get associated with HBO?
SERMERSHEIM: HBO was launching, well it started the satellite launches in ’75, and Telesis was one of the early affiliates back in the days with the ten meter dishes that cost a hundred thousand dollars. Telesis had a CARS microwave system throughout Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska and in a lot of those markets, especially Nebraska, at that point in time we couldn’t offer anything but the network stations. HBO was the salvation so we put a ten meter dish in Grand Island, Nebraska and then fed that signal on out across the state in several different directions. So that was about 1976 and that’s how I first met some of the wonderful people from HBO.
KELLER: Who was the first one you met?
SERMERSHEIM: I think probably Tom Oliver and Bob Caird, Jim Heyworth. Oh, Jim was the first! That’s right, because I remember that Dick Shively asked Jim Heyworth to come to Evansville, Indiana to speak to the advertising club. This was probably early ’75.
KELLER: Jim was still with Time Life at that time, wasn’t he? Or had he transferred?
SERMERSHEIM: He’d just started with HBO, just beginning, because it was a very, very new service, as you know.
KELLER: You say you were distributing through CARS microwave. That is Cable Antenna Relay System. It was a new method of distribution by microwave, wasn’t it, that was just recently, at that time, authorized by the FCC.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, and I think Telesis was the largest holder of CARS microwave applications. Dick Shively owned a television station in Lafayette, Indiana and actually one in North Platte, Nebraska, too, and he worked with Purdue University and Brian Lamb was even involved at that time. Both Brian and I started our careers with Shively, but Dick set up through Purdue University to feed educational courses down that microwave system, too. And this is again, 1974-75, so even though Telesis was a pretty small company (I think when I went to Evansville to become marketing director, we had 25,000 subs and ten years later we had 80,000) it was still a pretty innovative company.
KELLER: What’s interesting there is at that time most of the owners of cable or of television stations were not friends of cable. Dick was one of them who jumped on the bandwagon as opposed to somebody like Augie Meyer who wanted to fight us all the way down the line.
SERMERSHEIM: Actually, I hadn’t thought about that but you’re absolutely right.
KELLER: There were others who were television station owners – Ed Craney and the guy up in New England, I can’t remember his name right off hand but it’s not important – but the fact is that he was a television station owner and operator and got into cable very early on. He was somewhat of an electronic genius too, wasn’t he? Didn’t he manufacture some of his own equipment?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, again when mother and dad started with Telesis, their system was built with Telesis equipment. They discontinued that manufacturing operation, I think, probably in about ’68 or ’69. We also in ’68 had our own little mini-pay service bicycling tapes and were trying to market this to the industry. I remember going to the San Francisco convention and actually exhibiting under the name LOTS – Local Origination something or other. So again, Shively was a visionary and a man well ahead of his time in many respects.
KELLER: Tell me a little bit more about the types of things that you did when you were producing programs.
SERMERSHEIM: Well, I didn’t really get involved in that. He set up a different arm in Lafayette to do that so I was just there helping them sell. I guess that was the first time I actually worked a convention and didn’t realize then that the rest of my career would be spent doing that.
KELLER: Did he sell outside of his own organization or did he use it mostly internally?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, we were trying to, but I don’t think it worked too well. It was the age-old problem of bicycling tapes.
KELLER: As I recall, at that time we were very limited as to the number of stations we could bring into any market and so everyone was looking for additional programming and he was one of those that did that. How did you make the transition to HBO?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, that’s sort of an interesting story in my life. During the time I was at Telesis, because I got involved and helped start CTAM, which we can talk about, but…
KELLER: I want to get into that detail.
SERMERSHEIM: Okay. Through that organization, of course, I met many of the people involved in marketing in the cable business and they all became pretty good friends and about 1978 it appeared obvious that things were changing a lot for Telesis in terms of its fiduciary management and so I knew that the company would be sold or merged within a year or two. I thought, well, either I can control my own destiny or sit around here and wait for the inevitable, so I decided that it was time to make a move and looked around the industry and said, “Okay, where do I want to go? What’s the best company to work for?” It was pretty obvious even early on that HBO was by far the most interesting company out there and doing some new and wonderful things. They had some really great people and I had worked with them and I sort of knew the business, knew how to launch HBO in a system and market it. But I didn’t want to go knocking on the door myself. So I asked my good buddies, Ernie Olson and Greg Liptak, I said, “You know, I’d like to go to work for HBO I think, but I’d be at a much better negotiating position if they asked me.”
KELLER: Now, Greg wasn’t with HBO, was he?
SERMERSHEIM: No. He was with CPI then, I think. He was marketing director for that company and Ernie Olson was marketing director for Cox, marketing V.P., probably. So they said, “Well, let us see what we can do.” So a couple of weeks later, I got a call from Ernie and he said, “Just had the perfect opportunity.” He says, “Greg and I were having drinks with Nick Nicholas,” (Nick was then, I think, president of HBO), “and Nick said he really needed some people that knew the cable business and had some experience in marketing and did they have anybody they could recommend?”
KELLER: By this time, you’d been in the industry how long?
SERMERSHEIM: Ten years, twelve years. And of course they just very nonchalantly said, “You know, you ought to talk to Gail. I think Telesis is going through some changes and she might just be ready to make a move.” So, I guess it was a couple of days later I got a phone call from Tony Cox, and Tony said, “Gail, do you want to come work for HBO?” And I said, “Sounds good to me.”
KELLER: And so where did you start? Did you go back to New York at that point?
SERMERSHEIM: No, I actually kind of had my choice because then HBO only had regional offices in West Palm Beach and Dallas and I think, San Francisco and New York and they were getting ready to open in Philadelphia and Kansas City. And so, my choices were Philadelphia, Kansas City, and oh, Chicago I think was on the list or New York staff, or West Palm, because they needed more people there. Well this was February and the snow was about knee high.
KELLER: Florida looked pretty good, huh?
SERMERSHEIM: And I said, I think if I’m going somewhere I’ll head for the south and it turned out to be a great move because I loved Florida.
KELLER: And you’ve been in the south ever since, is that right?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, I stayed in Florida about eighteen months. Dennis Garcher and I were down there. There were two of us, I still find this hard to imagine, covering the whole southeast out of West Palm, so there were weeks when I went through the Atlanta airport seven or eight times because we traveled every day. We just traveled constantly. So I stayed there; Dennis left after a year and came and opened the Atlanta office and I stayed down in Florida another eight or nine months and then I brought someone in to replace me there and moved up to Atlanta. So eighteen months in Florida.
KELLER: What year was this then?
SERMERSHEIM: I moved to Atlanta in late ’79 and been there ever since.
KELLER: And you still did all the traveling and visiting, not only getting new affiliates, but servicing the existing affiliates.
KELLER: Tell me how you went about that? If you went into a small “Mom and Pop” operation down in Mississippi, how did you go in?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, first of all, I think you went in as a friend. It was easy for me in a respect because I was a cable person and I came from a cable family and so there was sort of an immediate trust that existed usually. We talked a lot about the financial benefits to the operator. There were a lot of concerns back then; concerns about unedited, uncensored movies and such, especially in the South, but I think most people were dying for programming of one sort or another. The harder thing actually, Jim, was not so much convincing them to take HBO, but convincing the operator to really market the service because before then, an operator usually in the rural areas, in particular, sold reception and it was pretty obvious that pay TV was a whole other ballgame. This was something that had to be promoted. The titles of the movies had to be gotten out there and communicated to potential subscribers. That was a harder battle and that’s really what an HBO affiliate relations person, certainly today spends all their time doing, but even back then spent a great deal of time doing.
KELLER: What were the dishes costing at that time?
SERMERSHEIM: I’m trying to remember.
KELLER: They were less than the original hundred thousand?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh, yes, but we still financed some.
KELLER: Oh, you were doing your own financing? I wasn’t aware of that.
SERMERSHEIM: It was kind of like the early days of Jerrold, when you really had to go out and help with the financing.
KELLER: That was the reason I asked that question.
SERMERSHEIM: In their case help with the engineering and help with the design but in our case it was sort of a package of we would help you finance your earth station; we will help you with your marketing; we’ll bring the materials to you; we’ll bring the mail and the radio spots; we’ll provide you a person, i.e. me, to help you get through the launch phase and to help you with your marketing.
KELLER: Did you have engineers on staff to help install and maintain the dishes?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, we had them available to make recommendations and advice. They didn’t come out that much but usually the hardware manufacturer would have somebody on site.
KELLER: At that time, I think you were the only one that was on the satellite and it was sometime later that Ted Turner came on, wasn’t it?
KELLER: So you had to convince them to make this capital expenditure for only one station at that time.
SERMERSHEIM: That’s right.
KELLER: How did you work it out with the small systems who were affiliates of major MSOs – of Cox or ATC or somebody else at that time? What was the relationship between the local operator and the corporate office?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, it varied depending on the MSO, or it certainly did and still does today, but we, at that time, were organized with an MSO group in New York and that staff group and affiliate relations people would deal with the corporate headquarters and the people in the regional offices, like myself, then would deal with the local system management. So, usually when it came to launching, a lot of the decisions were made corporately, but the local person still had to be convinced that this was in their best interest so we’d have one person out at the MSO headquarters and one at the system and we’d sort of work together.
KELLER: Traveling through the South and the Southeast, you must have a lot of stories about things that occurred in the early days down there.
SERMERSHEIM: Well, it’s a time I remember with great fondness, Jim, because there were so many wonderful people out there. As you went from town to town you came across numerous people who’d built their own systems from scratch and raised the money and were still there working at that time and they were wonderful people to be with. For the most part, I guess we, the affiliate relations people, were kind of like a combination white knight, pied pipers and court jesters. We rode into town and we had all the latest news and we had a little money to take folks out and entertain them and we had a product that…
KELLER: You knew every steakhouse in the South!
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, and KFC, and of course every southern town has its own little café where the “in” people have lunch, so you had to be seen there with the manager and the owner and then sometimes you went to church with them. You went home for barbeque…
KELLER: Now that’s a new one. I hadn’t heard that one! You made the church scene, huh?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, and some of those people still are friends today and like I said, they’re my favorite memories.
KELLER: Well, they are still generally in your territory today, too, aren’t they, in the Atlanta office?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, so many have retired and of course the systems have been bought and sold three or four times now, so the original entrepreneurs who were there are gone and have been for awhile.
KELLER: So now you’re ensconced in Atlanta with HBO. Did anything further develop in your career at that point, or was it just more of the same that you had in Palm Beach?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, it got bigger quickly. I mean the staff did, so I got promoted and became a vice-president, actually, in 1981 and sort of took over as head of the Atlanta office then. I’ve been in that same capacity since then, but we steadily, pretty rapidly, grew that staff because our affiliate base grew so fast. That, and then because of the changes in marketing and the increased sophistication in marketing, the role changed a lot. Again, in the early days, our jobs were selling and servicing and we had a lot of owners with whom we did contracts, but by about I’d say ’85, when consolidation started, the number of owner operators started dwindling so the contractual sales side of our business declined a bit and we became much more focused on marketing support to our customers.
KELLER: Were your contracts automatically assumed by the person who bought, or the company who bought the local system in most cases?
SERMERSHEIM: Basically, I mean HBO, today certainly is in every cable system, as is Cinemax and HBO pretty much was there, I think, probably by the mid-’80’s at the latest. So it was a matter of renewing contracts which has become pretty automatic.
KELLER: Did the affiliate relations people have any input into the programming aspect of HBO at all?
SERMERSHEIM: No, basically not. Occasionally we would have comments that we would take back on content and sensitivity to certain things in certain areas. We would send the message back to New York when there was programming that might be problematic in our area, when affiliates raised their concerns but that was pretty much it.
KELLER: Did the affiliates ever get together at a conference or a meeting or sessions in which they discussed the similar problems that they had?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, we’ve done that over time and we’ve done it on a national basis. We’ve done it some regionally. For the most part we don’t do it as much anymore, again because of the consolidation and because most of the conversations between the companies on policy and strategic matters happen at the MSO level.
KELLER: Do you ever talk to your counterpart in Chicago, as an example, or Los Angeles?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, quite frequently. We get together. The HBO regional heads come together about every other month and spend two days talking about the business.
KELLER: That often you still come together?
KELLER: In the early days, though, how often did you get together?
SERMERSHEIM: It’s hard to remember because things were happening so fast. I’d have to say probably – we had one large meeting a year with all the affiliate relations staff – and then the office heads would probably get together every other month or every quarter since I started with HBO.
KELLER: Did any of the systems in the South ever preempt a program from HBO. Say, they were just simply not going to show this movie or this program or whatever it may be on our system, going back to the sensitivity in some of the areas.
SERMERSHEIM: Maybe once, but I’m not sure. I can’t recall.
KELLER: Any problems that arose from city councils or other franchise authorities about some of the programming that was sent at the time?
SERMERSHEIM: Occasionally, but not often.
KELLER: Would you have to answer those complaints?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, we would, or the affiliate would in many cases.
KELLER: How would you talk to a mayor who was up in arms about the sexuality of a motion picture?
SERMERSHEIM: Freedom of choice is certainly the most often advocated position and that the consumer has the choice of HBO. Certainly that’s your ultimate out and the movie product being produced is really Hollywood’s call, not ours and it’s generally what people want.
KELLER: You’ve always got the button, haven’t you? You can always turn it off.
SERMERSHEIM: Actually, there were a couple of situations where there was picketing and it was a little town outside of St. Augustine. I don’t think they ever took HBO off, but they got picketed for over a month by a local religious group – Palatka, Florida, I think that’s it. There was, was it Sarasota? I think it was Sarasota that, didn’t pull HBO, but pulled their earlier pay service. (They had a pay service before HBO.)
KELLER: So you really hadn’t too many problems with that at all.
SERMERSHEIM: No, not really.
KELLER: When you went out to a system on a regular call, which you did, were you a service representative also? What would you normally do? How would you handle them?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, we would sit down and visit a bit. You must always visit in the South before you do business and inquire after each other’s health. Usually we would bring news from what was the latest going on in the business, what was the latest in programming, because we were changing constantly. When HBO started, it was seven movies a month, twelve hours a day. So we gradually expanded and were adding new programming and new concepts, trying new marketing things. So we would talk about all aspects of the business and there were usually conversations about the technical side too, because that was always a little problematic. Security was frequently an issue, and then we’d focus in again on marketing. We knew pretty much what every system was doing in a marketing sense and HBO of course, for years, has offered operators numerous marketing materials, marketing campaigns and programs, so a lot of what an affiliate relations person does is to go out and convince the operator of the benefits of being involved in some of these marketing campaigns. So that’s a lot of what we would do.
KELLER: Did you ever recommend a descrambling system or a scrambling system in a local system?
SERMERSHEIM: No, we tried to know as much as we could about them, but we tried not to play favorites either.
KELLER: But you did say there were a number of them that were available at that time before you scrambled nationally.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, but HBO was, and still is today, sort of the leader in marketing and before HBO, the marketing side of the business really took a backseat to the technical side and the financial side. And it was really HBO that came in, I think, and awakened the industry to what marketing could do for you.
KELLER: This is a good place to stop, because I want to segue into the marketing aspect and CTAM.
End of Tape 1, Side A
Start of Tape 1, Side B
KELLER: We were talking, Gail, about the marketing of HBO and how HBO really was in the forefront of cable marketing in general, not only of pay television. But then you had to take the next step into bringing the marketing people, both in corporate and also local, into some kind of an organization to bring everything together. How did you manage to do that?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, if you’re referring to CTAM, which became our national marketing society, that happened really a little bit before my time with HBO. It happened because of HBO or because of the launch of pay television. There were some early attempts in the very early ’70’s by the NCTA to bring the industry’s marketing people together in some sort of formal marketing society. I think Tom Dowden and Del Henry and a few others had a meeting or two in Denver. People came but it just didn’t gel and in 1975, in September, Greg Liptak and Tom Willett and David Lewine, who each were heading up marketing jobs in major companies in the business, called a bunch of us together in Chicago because at that time everybody in the industry was getting ready to launch pay television and no one in the world knew how to do this. We were all trying different things and thinking about different things, and the logic was let’s come together and share our ideas and information. What little experience we have we can share and maybe by doing this it will help all of us. There were probably fifty people at that meeting. Bill Bresnan was one of them and Trygve Myhren. I think Bill was heading up TelePrompTer then, so we had both operations and marketing people there and we just sat in a room for two days and talked about what we were doing; what we thought we should do; what we thought the consumer response would be; had anybody done any research; there were conversations about the technical side. It was the most frank and open discussion I’ve ever heard then or since in the cable television business and it was exciting because people were willing to really bare their souls and work together. About the middle of that meeting, Greg came up to me and he said, “You know, we’ve been thinking that maybe we ought to go ahead and try again to put together a professional marketing group.” He said, “Would you chair the steering committee and get a group together and talk about this while we’re here at the meeting?” And I did.
KELLER: Can you remember some of the people that were on the steering committee for the formation of the CTAM group.
SERMERSHEIM: Well I remember in particular Doug Jarvis, who was with Cablevision then, because he was our one naysayer. I’m sure Jeff Marcus maybe, Jerry Maglio, so many of the names you’ve known throughout the history of cable and marketing were all there early on and I think about probably ten of them served on that steering committee. From there the committee agreed pretty much, with the exception of Doug, that we ought to go ahead and do this, so a few months later…
KELLER: What was Doug’s problem?
SERMERSHEIM: I think he thought that the NCTA should do it, and that we really didn’t need another organization. But I think the marketing people felt that we needed sort of our own bailiwick, if you would. That we needed to be on our own and that we needed to continue this kind of sharing and not get quite so bogged down in the regulatory, administrative side of the business, which was really the NCTA’s purview.
KELLER: And yet, part of the name was administration – administrative as well as marketing. How did that come about?
SERMERSHEIM: That came about because there was a very real concern that the marketing discipline wasn’t terribly well respected in the early days. So we felt that it was very important to align ourselves with management and one of our agendas was to convince management of the importance of marketing and the need to do a lot more. So we had to sort of bring that in, too.
KELLER: How did you go about doing that?
SERMERSHEIM: By inviting the management operations people to our meetings. By having meetings that had an operations bent as well as a marketing bent. By trying to always marry the two. You can’t really talk about marketing without talking about operations. At least you couldn’t back then, because it was all well and good to go out and sell subscribers, but if your boss didn’t have enough drop cable in to hook them up, it was all for naught. With the kind of separation we had at one time, that wouldn’t have been an unlikely scenario. So it was very important that we started coming together and talking more with each other and that we got their respect, if you would.
KELLER: Did you come in with any recommendations for pricing through the CTAM group?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, you can’t. You really can’t. During our meeting in Chicago, actually Dave Lewine, who I believe was CPI then, I forget, it’s been so long.
KELLER: Communications Properties, Inc.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes. He actually had brought his attorney and walked out at one point because he thought we were stepping over the line in what we were talking about. So we learned pretty early on that as a group you can’t touch certain topics.
KELLER: Pricing was one of them?
SERMERSHEIM: Pricing was definitely one of them.
KELLER: What type of things did you talk about then?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, you talk about what works in marketing. How to reach the consumer. How do you take a product that nobody’s really ever heard about or thought about and create the demand for it, and have people pay extra for it. And you also talked some about the technical side of things because the security was pretty important too. One of the big problems was you’d sign people up and they’d disconnect and then do their own de-trapping or whatever and you’d have illegal customers. So we talked about marketing, about public relations, about how to do grand openings, how to do door-to-door sales.
KELLER: As I recall, one of the problems we had, was how to sell to the elderly.
SERMERSHEIM: We still have that problem. I have Florida in my territory. We still have that problem. We really do. The Florida systems probably sell 20-30% less HBO.
KELLER: What are the breakdowns of selling to people – demographic breakdowns in your company?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, primarily your target groups are still 18-49 kind of, your younger to middle range group of people. Television still has a stronger appeal in that age range than it does after.
KELLER: Did you ever discuss at CTAM how to reach the elderly and how to go about it? Not necessarily with pay television but with other product.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, we probably have from time to time. But again, early on we were after that first 10%. There are marketing people who tell me that in the early days that people were knocking down their doors to get pay television, but that’s not my recollection.
KELLER: Nor mine.
SERMERSHEIM: I remember my first launch, 5% was a great number and we were happy to get to 10% after the end of about 18 months. So it was really an awareness building, a demand building kind of situation so it wasn’t easy.
KELLER: Did you ever use the marketing directors who were members of CTAM as a focus group for new product or things of this nature?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh yes. One of the benefits of the organizations is it enables people to get to know each other, so through that you find the people who are good strategic thinkers. If you want to have a meeting with them, you come to identify who they are and whose opinions you want to tap. CTAM’s done a lot of things. I remember our first meeting, after we had the meeting in Chicago and then Greg Liptak and I wrote the bylaws and got the organization started, our first meeting we held in Atlanta in ’76, I believe it was. There were 99 guys and me.
KELLER: 99 guys and Gail.
SERMERSHEIM: 99 guys and Gail. I think maybe the next year we had two women, and that meeting was sort of again, pay television – how do we move this forward? The next year we did something innovative for its time. We took CTAM to Hollywood. This was the first time the Hollywood community and the cable community ever sat down together and that was CTAM’s doing. That was one of the things the organization could do was to sort of move a mass group of people and give them a platform to get together and talk. That helped build a few bridges. There are still more that could be built today but CTAM, over time, was able to serve many different functions.
KELLER: Did Jack Valenti talk to you during that first meeting or at any time after that?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, but I can’t remember if it was then or later.
KELLER: Do you have any idea what he said? Terrible question to ask of the memory. He always had a lot to say, it was just a matter of whether he had his political hat on or his salesman hat on.
SERMERSHEIM: I think CTAM in the early days served such a vital function because, again…
KELLER: Excuse me Gail, Jack Valenti was president of the Motion Picture Producers Association, or whatever they called it, but I think that’s pretty close to it.
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, but CTAM served a really vital function because people in this business wanted to share information and legally they needed a good platform to do that. You needed somebody to organize it, and it was a true volunteer organization, Jim. In the early days because we didn’t have much staff, well we didn’t have any for the first three or four years, I mean I kind of did it in my basement sort of thing. It wasn’t until maybe year four or five that we had an executive and of course today it has a wonderful staff, but in the early days it was people volunteering and helping each other this way. It also was very unique because one thing Greg and I did early on was say, this needs to be different. We want to have meetings where people sit down and talk. We want the suppliers to be equal to the operators. We don’t want the suppliers over there standing behind tables giving a sales pitch. We want them sitting at the table helping us find solutions to the various marketing problems we had. So the first thing was to eliminate exhibits, eliminate commercialism, discourage the programmers and suppliers from having meetings. I remember when I’d chair the convention in Chicago, I think it was Warner or somebody had a hospitality suite and we shut them down. We said, no, you don’t do that at CTAM. So we also believed very much early on in the concept that in order to benefit from the organization, you had to participate. So for the first few years, in order to be a member of CTAM, you had to supply an idea, a marketing idea or a write-up on something you’d done, an ad or something. Those were sent in and I actually took them and made all the copies. The books were about that thick and I distributed them to everybody, so again, it was trying to create a culture of sharing.
KELLER: As a little bit of an aside, some of the people mentioned by Gail are also in The Cable Center’s files and also in the archives with their own video and audio history. Example, Greg Liptak, Trygve Myhren. These names do have a way of interacting with each other. You said that you’d developed a staff in CTAM. When did that happen and who were the original staff members, do you recall?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, I think it was probably about year four or five. The one I recall best is of course, Lucille Larkin, who also then went on to work with Women in Cable as its executive director for a number of years. But there were various and different – Lucille may have been the first – and then we sort of evolved from a small shop to gradually getting larger and larger and today it has Char Beales and an incredibly wonderful staff.
KELLER: Was it difficult to sell the companies on paying the dues for the marketing people?
SERMERSHEIM: No, that never seems to have been a problem. I think the organization has always been regarded very highly because it’s been known that these are work sessions. These are not play sessions. Again, there’s not a lot of entertaining and parties. There’s a little more today than there was because of the need to help fund them but they were pretty much known as down and dirty and you’re going to go in there and you’re working.
KELLER: You said the first session had about a hundred people – you and 99 men, pretty good odds, I guess. How many are in the organization today?
SERMERSHEIM: 5,000. It didn’t have chapters early on but that evolved in the last ten years or so as a local grass roots type of effort. I just came from this year’s meeting with 2,400 people there. It was quite interesting and exciting.
KELLER: Who were some of the speakers this year?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, Leo Hindery was the key note speaker and Jill Berard of Mattel was fascinating.
KELLER: (Leo Hindery being the head of the AT&T division that handles cable televisions, former president of TCI, which we will also be able to refer to as having a video history before too much longer.) When did Women in Cable develop?
SERMERSHEIM: Women in Cable sort of started to happen about the same time as CTAM, ’76, ’77. It really started to come about because Lucille Larkin, who was then VP of public affairs with NCTA went to an all girls school and I guess she was used to having other women around. She was kind enough in ’76, ’77, to invite the few women who were going to national conventions then to her room and we’d have wine and visit. I think the first time there were ten people there. It was June Travis and Barbara Ruger and Vivian Horner and probably Kay Koplovitz and myself and a couple of others. The second time she did it, there might have been twenty. People have to realize, especially the young ones today, there was a time, you probably remember, when you went to a national convention or Western Show, you might see five or six women who were there actually in professional capacities with the operating companies or with programmers and in addition there would be those hired locally to be hostesses or whatever for the exhibits. But there were very, very few of us out there moving around, if you would, on a national basis. So Lucille would bring us together and it was really her thought at first, after a couple of years of this, that we ought to have an organization. She kept trying to build consensus to make it happen and finally about 1979, she and I were talking and I said, “Lucille, I don’t think you’re ever going to get a women’s organization put together if you keep trying to do it by consensus. Why don’t we just form an organization? Those that want to join us will join us, those that don’t, fine. But we’re never going to please everybody.” So we did. We sat down and June and I and Lucille and Vivian and Kay, I think, and Barbara – wrote the bylaws, established our objectives and our vision for this organization. We put it together and they must have liked it because thousands came over time.
KELLER: You mentioned in the material you submitted to us that a statement of purpose for the Women in Cable was to provide a support network, increase visibility for women in cable, and help to educate and train women for leadership positions. Is that, in a nutshell, what the purpose of the organization is?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, it certainly was early on. Again, we felt that the cable industry had tremendous potential. Any new business has lots of opportunities and we wanted to attract women from other industries and build the base of female talent in our business. But we knew from our own experience that it’s very difficult to be out there on your own, I mean, “99 guys and me.” You do feel a little out of place at times and so we wanted to make the cable experience more comfortable for the new ones coming in by having a support network of people they could talk to, feel comfortable with, share good thoughts and mentor, and that sort of thing. And we felt it’s important to get visibility. There are a lot of women doing good things but people have to hear about it. So an organization can do that. An organization can contact the media and promote individuals on behalf of the organization and obviously there’s also a lot of training and executive development that needed to happen for all of us. Anybody in the cable business back then probably learned their craft by doing, not by any kind of formal education and that included the women, so we all felt that there were some gaps in our education and that having an organization could help us fill those. It really worked and this thing started out with maybe four or five chapters because the other concept was, unlike CTAM, which was a national organization from day one and formed chapters ten years later, Women in Cable started off really being a local organization because again, there weren’t enough women who could get together nationally to have much of a viable organization. You had enough to have a board, that was about it. The rest of the women that were in the business probably couldn’t get their boss to spend money to send them to Washington or Chicago or San Francisco, and especially not to send them if it was for a women’s organization. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite stories goes back to an evening that Lucille, June Travis and I were in the bar at the Plaza in New York – no, it was the Essex House, that’s right – and I guess the NCTA board was meeting there at the same time for some reason. So we were sitting there having drinks and an unnamed NCTA board member came in and he’d had a little too much to drink and he saw us girls sitting there, so he sat down and says, “Oh, how you doing? What are you all doing here in town?” And we said, “Well, we’re working on some Women in Cable business.” He said, “That organization! I wouldn’t let my women join. By God, if they’re going to join, then I’ll fire them.” And then of course he realized, all of the sudden, who he was talking to and sank down behind the bar. But it was not the, maybe, accepted thing to do and time had to pass before we as an organization could prove to the men and to the companies that we could do the job and command their respect. So it served, and still serves today, a very viable purpose.
KELLER: This developed much about the same time that the overall women’s movement developed also. Do you think there was any reaction between the two, or was one without the other?
SERMERSHEIM: Possibly. We had Betty Friedan in, I think, year three or four and she’s still a strong supporter of Women in Cable and the author of The Feminine Mystique, and who really, I guess as much as anybody, could be called the founder of the women’s movement. There were a lot of similarities, although I think with Women in Cable you had less of the problem of women coming out of motherhood and housework. We had a younger group, who were still probably not married, or if they were, didn’t have families and were coming out of school and going into business. So, we were able to sort of feed on this whole wave of careers for women that happened about the same time, and again, I think because we had women in cable, because we had women in the business already, cable was viewed as kind of a friendly place for women to come.
KELLER: That was going to be my next question. Many people have stated that cable, to use your terms, is more friendly to women than perhaps television or movies or any of the other communications companies. Do you think part of that was because of Women in Cable?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, absolutely, because again, I know when I went to look for my second job, or my second company, I looked around the industry and I said to myself, “Okay, who’s hiring women? What companies look like they’re receptive to bringing women on board and moving them up through the ranks and the only one out there then was HBO.” And I think the same kind of look happens when a woman comes out of school and is looking for a career and says, “What industries are out there? What industries show any signs of being friendly to women? Where do I have the best chance?” And because, again, cable had an organization called Women in Cable, that was one good sign. And the industry supported the organization and always has. I will say that. I think the guys, at first, didn’t understand what we were about but they were always supportive and so new women coming in could see that, and it helped attract more women.
KELLER: Did you ever do any recruiting or assist any of the women coming out of school, as an example, to try to find jobs?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh, yes. I think we all did individually.
KELLER: But not as an organization?
SERMERSHEIM: Not formally. There were some visits to campuses and things like that. We spent probably a lot more time with the women who were in the business or just starting off who maybe had had system level jobs, trying to help them move up. Trying to help them move into the corporate staff positions and that sort of thing.
KELLER: What would be your advice to a woman, say in the mid-’80’s, coming out of a graduate school with an MBA, about getting into cable. Where would they go? How would they get involved? How would they get started?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, in the mid-’80’s, it was go to the programmers because the door was open and there was incredible opportunity. Again, very fast growing companies, which is always good for diversity because companies that need people, and need good people, don’t stop to think about do they all look alike. They will hire where the talent is. So, it was go to the programmers. They’re hiring; they’re promoting women. I mean, HBO, I was a vice-president in ’81 of HBO. By that time, by the mid-’80’s, there were many other programmers who also had women in senior management positions. That’s pretty obvious. It was, and still is, a harder job in the operations side because in order to make it to the top at the MSO level, you really have to have system level operations experience and that was much slower. Much, much harder; much more resistance to women being in what’s considered by some to be a technical position – to have responsibility over technical matters; to have more financial responsibility. Marketing, sales, that was much easier and creative programming, that was easier. But it’s been much harder and the women I admire most, frankly, are those who made their way up through the operations side of the business and fought those battles.
KELLER: I want to get into that on the next tape, but I’ll end this tape – there used to be the old saying that women make better salespeople than men because they most assuredly can sell to women and very, very definitely can better sell to men. Would you agree with that?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh, I think yes, more than… More the personality, though. Women have a good knack for detail and perseverance, I’d say, tenacity.
KELLER: This is a good place to change tapes.
End of Tape 1, Side B
Start of Tape 2, Side A
KELLER: Gail, we were talking about the beginning and the development of Women in Cable, which today is known as Women in Cable and Telecommunications. Tell us how it really developed. You told us something about the people who got together initially but what was the pattern that developed in Women in Cable.
SERMERSHEIM: Initially we started with chapters and the first couple of years that went quite well. When the chapters came together we had, I think fairly early on, probably 15, 16 chapters. Each local community had a cadre of women who really wanted to come together and make some things happen and to build the network, if you would, and to benefit from a national organization. But we hit a real loll about year four or five, because what happened was in each of these chapters you sort of ran through the first batch of volunteers. People spent a couple of years being very intensely involved and putting in a lot of time and energy and then sort of moved on, maybe got promoted or whatever, and it was hard – there weren’t that many women in the business yet – it was hard to find that second generation to come in and take over. So we had a lot of chapters struggling and a lot of us at the national level spent a considerable amount of time going out to the various DMA’s in major cities and trying to help the local chapters along.
KELLER: On your employer’s ticket?
KELLER: So they allowed you to be able to do this?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, especially HBO. They’ve always been very good about that. But then we rekindled the flame, if you would, and more women started coming in and we started then to move beyond the networking visibility goals and into more training and development and I think Women in Cable today certainly has some of the best leadership development programs out there. Certainly the best in the industry and a lot of those early activities happened in about the mid-’80’s. We started with the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute, which has since evolved into an incredible year long course for 25 women each year. We started with the management seminar, again, the first time in this industry that a work intensive, case study kind of approach has been used in a cable meeting, if you would. The Women in Cable Management seminar each year spends three days going through a case study of decision making and planning and marketing and learning about operations and management, no matter what their discipline. So that happened sort of in the mid-’80’s and then about our tenth year, I think things took an even more dramatic turn in that there were three women at the head of the organization then – Jill Slavin, Terri Thompson and Margaret Richebourg – and they were visionaries. They saw, when they looked out at what women were facing in that period, they saw the tremendous struggle going on with how do we deal with being mothers and being career women. These women who came in early, maybe right out of college, eventually got married and were now having children and having to try and handle a life where you’re trying to do it all. And so they did a lot of research and study and I think helped the industry to further understand what the workforce is like today, what it’s going to be like in the future and where the needs are. What do employers need to do? One of my proudest moments is when Ted Turner built a daycare center and that was really because of Women in Cable and because Women in Cable showed his management that there was a real need out there. That you can attract much better staff and creative people, in particular, if you can help them with this problem. It’s the biggest problem women in business face – childcare. And so that group of Margaret and Jill and Terri really focused in on some of those issues and they also took the organization a step further. Early on we were fearful of alienating the boys, okay. We were always very careful in how we couched things, what kind of activities we did, because we knew without the industry’s support we wouldn’t have an organization and women wouldn’t get very far in this business. So we tried to work very much within the industry to be non-threatening as much as we could, but in the late-’80’s the organization took a step forward and sort of changed its objectives and the one I liked best was the new objective of empowering women to reach their full potential. It was the first time we said we’re strong, we can do this. So that was a major shift.
KELLER: Did you see, at that point, any difference in the relationship with the corporate management when you made that decision?
SERMERSHEIM: That’s a good question, because it was changing in that period and what changed it most were a few good leaders like Jim Robbins and Bob Miron and Jim Cownie, but also the fact that a lot of men who were in leadership at the MSO and programming level were at the age when their daughters were coming out of college and they started to see what we were talking about. They started to see the discrimination and the problems that women faced and the lack of opportunity that was out there in many areas. So that made our job easier.
KELLER: So you’re saying that discrimination was more sub-rosa than absolutely saying you’re not going to…
SERMERSHEIM: Right, absolutely. I think that’s true.
KELLER: Have you been able to overcome? Do you feel much of it up to this time has been overcome?
SERMERSHEIM: A lot of it has. We still have, today, the glass ceiling issues and we’re starting to see movement in that area but we still need more women and minorities, too, in operations in cable. There’s still a lot that they can contribute on that side of the business and we need as an organization today to help people more and more cope with life. That seems to be where we’re headed if you want to look out two or three or four years.
KELLER: That’s not only for women.
SERMERSHEIM: No, it really isn’t and maybe the organization’s focus has to become how do we help people develop, grow and deal with life. That’s an issue employers have to face. I just spoke before a group of about forty women at the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute group this year and out of forty women there were probably a third of them there who were in job changing kinds of situations and some of them voluntary. Their biggest question was how do we deal with the stress? How do we do it all? It’s too fast, too furious and we can’t handle it all. We need help. And so maybe that’s where the organization is headed for the next few years.
KELLER: It’s interesting that you call your institution the Betsy Magness Institute and as you know, being a director of The Cable Television Center, the educational institute of The Center is the Bob Magness Institute. Is there going to be any relationship between the two anytime?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, I think there can well be because we have had good relations with Ron Rizutto and the staff at the University of Denver has prepared a lot of the Women in Cable casework over the years and management coursework. So there’s already been a relationship there and I think because so many of us are involved in both organizations that you will see some natural ties, too. Pam Williams, who’s executive director for Women in Cable, sits with all of us on The Center’s board of directors.
KELLER: So you feel that there is going to be a relationship. Do you think your management seminars will be going through the Institute?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, that’s up to Pam and…
KELLER: That probably was a bad choice of terms, but there might be some relationship between the two of them, then?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, I think there might.
KELLER: And are you working toward that?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, we are. It’s one of my goals as an individual.
KELLER: You are currently chairing the program advisory board of The Cable Center. What does that entail?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, what it entails is really trying to craft what The Center will do for the programming community and what the programming community can do for The Center and that’s a very broad range of possibilities.
KELLER: Yes, it is.
SERMERSHEIM: So, we actually have divined a study that covers about eight different topics that we’re going to allocate out to various consultants and experts in certain areas to help us get a handle on this. There are obvious things that one would like to do; have and archive of programming, recognize the quality programming, promote cable programming to the public in general. So, the programming advisory council will be helping to formulate those programs, policies, procedures.
KELLER: That transcends the library itself then, doesn’t it?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, it does.
KELLER: Your previous job with The Center was as head of the library committee, isn’t that correct?
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, and The Center has today the largest library repository of information on cable in the world and it’s growing by leaps and bounds every day. Part of what I was able to do early on was to help with that process.
KELLER: And this interview will go into the archives of the library also. So you’re in there for posterity. You were awarded the National Cable Television Association’s Vanguard award for leadership. On what basis were you awarded that?
SERMERSHEIM: That was in 1981, so it’s been awhile ago, but it was a tremendous honor.
KELLER: It’s still the highest award they give.
SERMERSHEIM: It was, to this day, the biggest moment of my life, certainly, and a very, very special thing to me in many respects. That night, my escort was Nick Nicholas, who later went on to become chairman of Time Warner. I’m not sure if he was still president of HBO then, but he was my mentor in many respects and was kind enough to be there. My parents came. I surprised them. That was when you could do that. We had 5,000 people with entertainment, so it was quite a lovely evening and I think probably a recognition of the work I’d done with CTAM and Women in Cable as much as anything.
KELLER: And that was what you award was for? Your work in the organizations?
SERMERSHEIM: I believe that was probably what they would point to and talk about.
KELLER: You’ve received numerous other awards, both from CTAM and Women in Cable, and you got one from the YWCA. What was that one?
SERMERSHEIM: The YWCA has an Academy of Women Achievers, as they call it, so they pick women from many different disciplines, different companies across the board, who displayed leadership in various ways and do a huge luncheon every year. I still get mailings from them even though it’s been ten years ago now.
KELLER: If you were starting over again, in cable television, would you do anything differently then what you did?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, two things differently. One would be probably to change jobs a little earlier because I didn’t really have a lot of ambition. I came from this small town where girls were teachers or nurses if you had an education. I was the first in the family to get educated and I sort of thought you got a job and you stayed with that company all your life. That was the pattern I was used to seeing, so I think in retrospect, I spent almost twelve years with Telesis, I probably didn’t need to stay there that long. I could have moved on faster.
KELLER: Where would you have gone?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, as I think back, maybe a couple of years earlier with HBO and I’d have been there before Les Read. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity – there might have been some marketing, MSO jobs I could have taken. So, it’s not a big regret. It just seemed like an awful long time in one job. And the second thing is I could have asked for more money when I came to work for HBO.
KELLER: We’ve been talking about your success. Do you recall a failure in your career?
SERMERSHEIM: Other than not asking for enough money? I don’t look at life in that way, to be honest. I don’t think of it in terms of failures. Some things don’t work out well sometimes, but I don’t classify anything in my life as a failure.
KELLER: How do you look at life, from your perspective of your job, your career?
SERMERSHEIM: I think that my life is something that I am very much in control of and responsible for, that’s a better way to put it. That whatever happens to me happens because of what I do and how I approach things and that if you have a love for what you do, which I do, and a love for the industry, good things will happen. I feel so blessed to have been a part of cable television. I remember a few years back, I was dating somebody who was in the building industry and I took him around to a few cable functions over the course of a year or two and he said to me one day, “You just don’t know how lucky you are, do you? You people actually like each other. In our business, it’s cutthroat. It’s dog eat dog. You’re having a wonderful time and you all are even at times competitors and you still like each other.” And I think we’ve all been very blessed. This is a business where people have worked together. It’s like a family. I’m an only child, my parents are in cable, but my real family is the cable television industry.
KELLER: I think many of us can say that. At my opening, I mentioned Gail was a woman extraordinaire and I believe that she has made a major impact on the industry and in furthering women’s place in the industry, and I would hope that somebody viewing this in future times, maybe after we’re gone, will recognized just what a major impact you’ve had on the business.
SERMERSHEIM: Thank you, Jim.
KELLER: Thank you very much from the industry. I’ll end with the commercial. This was made possible by a grant from The Gustave Hauser Foundation as part of the Oral History Program of The National Cable Television Center and Museum. Thanks again, Gail.
SERMERSHEIM: Thank you.