Interview Date: 1999
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Kathleen Pavelko
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
Note: Video not available at this time
SERMERSHEIM: Gail Sermersheim, spelled G-A-I-L S-E-R-M-E-R-S-H-E-I-M, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Home Box Office.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, great. How did you originally get involved in the cable industry?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, that goes back a long way, but when I was in college, in Indiana University, my parents came up one weekend to visit and said that a man had come to town to talk to them about starting a cable television system in our home town of Jasper, Indiana and over the months that ensued they got involved in the business and when I was ready to graduate with a degree in photo journalism, there weren’t too many jobs around so the gentleman that ran the company that they worked for, a company called Telesis, was — set up some interviews for me in Chicago and we had lunch and he said, “You know, Gail, if you don’t know what you want to do yet or can’t find the right job,” he said, “why don’t you come work for us? We’re going to start a cable system in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where I was going to school and we’d be happy to have you come work as a receptionist and just help us keep track of things and keep the office open while we’re constructing the system and he agreed to pay me $1.73 an hour for my labors, and I said all right, and about three months later the company hired a V.P. of Marketing and he came to town and talked — and we talked and he said — you know, you ought to be in sales. He said — why don’t you go out and hire some folks to start a door-to-door sales team here to help us sell cable, and so I did and from then on I migrated into marketing and after considerable number of years with that company, to HBO.
INTERVIEWER: How did you originally get involved in the cable industry?
SERMERSHEIM: Actually I got involved in the cable industry because my parents were. They ran a small system in a town in southern Indiana and while I was in school they were kind enough to introduce me to the people who want that company and who were based in Chicago, actually, and through — I’ll start again — okay. Actually I got involved in the cable television industry because of my parents. They started in the early ’60s running a small system in Jasper, Indiana and through them I met the individuals who ran the company, which was called Telesis. They offered me a job after I got out of school — actually they offered me a job as a receptionist at $1.73 an hour, but it was something to do until I found myself and I guess I found myself because it’s 30 years later and I’m still in cable television.
INTERVIEWER: What was the most striking aspect about the cable industry when you first began your career?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, I think it was that it was very much a mom and pop — very much a small town phenomenon — and you know, hardly ever talked about or heard about in national media, for example. I can remember the first time I heard Johnny Carson utter the words “cable TV,” it was like — well, we finally made it. The world’s finally recognizing this new industry.
INTERVIEWER: Well, what are the key elements of your personal success?
SERMERSHEIM: I think probably one of the key elements of my success is perseverance and sort of a knack for creative problem solving and an inherent belief that we are all responsible for our own destiny so that you do have the ability to impact what your future’s going to be.
INTERVIEWER: Well, what would you say is your greatest professional achievement?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh, I think that’s easy. I think my greatest professional achievement has been the contributions I’ve been able to make towards the spirit of cooperation and the camaraderie that exists in the cable television business. I really think it’s quite unique. From the very earliest days this industry has had a tradition of people working together and helping each other and through the work that I’ve done with C-TAM, first of all, to helping to found it and through — to run it through the first few years through the work with Women in Cable to its formative years and even today through the National Cable Center that — I’ve been able to contribute something to bringing people together even more and facilitating their working together.
INTERVIEWER: Some successful women CEOs have said it was easier for them to enter the cable business during its formative years because there are no definite rule. Would you agree with this assessment?
SERMERSHEIM: I don’t think it was easier to enter cable early on, but I do believe that if you were fortunate enough by whatever means to get into this business early on that because there aren’t very many women, there was no conscience thought given to barriers or to inhibiting their movement through the industry, so I think the handful of us that started fairly early had great opportunity. It was much, much harder as the numbers got bigger for women, I think, to make their way through the levels.
INTERVIEWER: Some successful women CEOs have said it was easier for them to enter the cable business during its formative years because there were no definite rules. Would you agree with this assessment?
SERMERSHEIM: I don’t really believe it was easier to enter cable in the early years because there just weren’t that many opportunities open for women that the men who then ran the industry wouldn’t even consider a woman for a particular position. Most of us who came in early really came in as secretaries or assistants in some sort of capacity, but I think once we got there we had some real opportunities because there were no rules.
INTERVIEWER: Often cable has been characterized as being entrepreneurial and almost fraternal in nature. Did this sort of club of mostly men prove to be a detriment or an enhancement to your career trajectory?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, during the early year when I was first involved in the cable industry it was definitely a club of men but I don’t — I didn’t think of this as a hindrance. I think that back then again there were so few women that those of us who were around were viewed more as little sisters or something so we were sort of there and added to the mix, but, you know, we weren’t prejudiced against because there are really so few of us.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, there have been rapid changes in the industry lately. How do you see the cable and telecommunications industry changing in the next few years?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, you got an hour? Changing for women? Oh, how do I see the industry changing for women in the next few years or just…
INTERVIEWER: Just changing in general.
SERMERSHEIM: It’s obvious that our industry is changing very rapidly and in the next few years that’s going to continue. Our consolidation will continue, the proliferation into new services will, the convergence issue will — convergence will continue to happen so probably in five years cable television will look and feel totally different than it did five years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think these changes will have a particular effect on women in the industry?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, the consolidation of our industry is certainly going to have an effect on women and it’s hard to say which way that will go. It’s going to depend on the individuals that run these handful of companies on the operating side of the business. If those individuals care about seeing women in minorities move ahead, they will. If they don’t, then the struggle will have to continue. On the programming side I think it’s a much different question because women have really made their way in programming. There are numerous network heads that are female and there are numerous executives that are female and I think the paths are wide open on that side of the business, where it still remains — the question is still open where there is still — seems to be something of a glass ceiling is on the operating side.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the emergence of the female CEO has altered the shape of the industry?
SERMERSHEIM: No. I — on the programming side of the business the fact that there are a number of women heading networks today has really changed things.
INTERVIEWER: Start it again where you said on the programming side of the business — if you could start right there.
SERMERSHEIM: On the programming side of the business, the fact that there are a number of women who have networks has dramatically changed our business and our business for women. On the — on the operating side I think it still remains to be seen.
There’s the female CEOs on the back of the other question. I was going to say what CEOs? We only had one briefly on the operating side.
INTERVIEWER: Should I pose the question again or do you…
SERMERSHEIM: Yes, let’s go on again.
INTERVIEWER: Are you satisfied with the progress that women have made in the industry — do you believe parity has been achieved?
SERMERSHEIM: I think for the most part I’m very satisfied with the progress that women have made because if you compare our industry to a lot of others it’s really pretty obvious that women are a much vital and more integral part of cable than they are in many other industries. That’s not to say that they couldn’t do even more. Again on the programming side, I believe parity virtually is there. On the operating side that we still have some rungs of the ladder which haven’t seen many women yet.
INTERVIEWER: All right, this is obviously a very demanding business and many people are concerned today with balancing their personal and their professional life. Has balance ever been a problem for you?
SERMERSHEIM: I think balancing life was certainly a problem for me in my younger years of spending 90 hours a week on the career as it is probably for most people — men and women. I don’t think women, you know, hold the franchise there. Fortunately, as I have grown a little older I’ve learned to enjoy myself more and I think today am very pleased with the balance that friends and hobbies and lots of travel give me.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about mentors. Do you have any contemporaries you view as role models and who were they?
SERMERSHEIM: No, I really don’t.
INTERVIEWER: What about yourself as a mentor — do you have any advice for young people in the industry today who are just starting out?
SERMERSHEIM: I think if I were to advise someone just starting in a business I would point out that there is much to be gained both professionally and personally from forming good solid friendships within the work environment. That one of the things again that’s always cable great was the fact that the people involved work together, cared about each other — even though they weren’t of the same companies and if you develop those business friendships they can help you throughout your career.
INTERVIEWER: Big questions or should I wait for — should I ask questions about WIC’s? What do you see a WIC’s greatest achievement?
SERMERSHEIM: I think WIC’s greatest achievement is certainly the thousands of women who have benefited, some in a small way, some in a very large way, from its existence.
INTERVIEWER: What was the most memorable event you can recall from your presidential years?
SERMERSHEIM: None that I can talk about.
INTERVIEWER: I know that you founded not one but two professional organizations. I just wondered what inspired you to form these organizations initially?
SERMERSHEIM: This goes back to that other question. I think my involvement in the professional organizations and this industry has really been inspired by a strong compulsion to organize things whenever possible and I think by the need from perhaps — although I didn’t realize it at the time — from being a single female out in a world dominated by males and that to a natural need to develop more friends and develop some sort of support network.
INTERVIEWER: How do you see WIC as influencing the industry?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, I think obviously Women in Cable and Telecommunications has influenced the industry by being a constant reminder that women can and should be an integral part of this business and that women can accomplish equal to men.
INTERVIEWER: In your opinion what’s the most dramatic change in cable and telecommunication for women since you’ve been president?
SERMERSHEIM: The most dramatic change for women since we started Women in Cable has really been the number — sheer numbers of women who have come in to our business and probably the development of the programming side of the business which really provided wide open opportunity. It’s, for example, working with HBO from the day I started back in 1978. HBO was always a company that felt very comfortable bringing in women and advancing them rapidly, so it didn’t take but a few of those on the programming side, I think, to really open the doors for women.
INTERVIEWER: Stop for one second… Let’s talk about your career trajectory at HBO. How did you first get involved with HBO?
SERMERSHEIM: As — my coming on board with HBO was really a well-planned, well-thought out battle. My joining HBO back in 1978 didn’t happen by accident. Actually at that time I was with a company and they were getting ready to make some major changes and I knew it was time to leave and I looked around this great industry and said — where is the best place to go? And the obvious answer even though it was a very new start-up kind of company was HBO. I thought about it a while so I talked to some of my good friends who were on the operating side also and just suggested as good friends, maybe they might help me in mind if I were ever to get a job with HBO and several of them at the right opportunities dropped a hint here and there and one day Tone & Cox called and we took it from there.
INTERVIEWER: And where did you start out at HBO?
SERMERSHEIM: Actually when I first interviewed with HBO we had jobs open in New York, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Dallas and Fort Lauderdale or actually West Palm Beach and it was February and there was about five inches of snow on the ground in southern Indiana so I opted for West Palm Beach, stayed there about 18 months and then moved to Atlanta in late ’79 to open the office there.
INTERVIEWER: How has the company evolved in the last 20 years?
SERMERSHEIM: HBO interestingly enough is a company that seems to just get better with age. We had our major growth spurt in the mid-’80s, brought on a lot of new people so in terms of personnel we stayed pretty much the same, but we’ve always managed to ever so slightly reinvent ourselves and reinvent what we do and look at things a different way and continued to grow and maintain the premium spot on the pay television side of the business. I’m going to go back to the one where we’re talking about my greatest contribution — oops, sorry. Don’t you hate it when people do that. Mess things up now…
INTERVIEWER: Okay, what would you say is your greatest professional achievement?
SERMERSHEIM: I think my greatest professional accomplishment is the contributions I’ve been able to make to organizations like CTAM and Women in Cable and today the National Cable Center because I truly believe that those organizations and the other professional societies in our business have done an incredible amount to promote and facilitate the camaraderie that makes cable so special. Through those organizations people are able to meet, to work together to form friendships and those friendships and relationships help them throughout their business careers.
INTERVIEWER: If you had to say a couple of the most significant changes that occurred in the cable industry since you’ve been involved with it, what would those be?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, it’s — that’s a dif — cable has seen many changes over the years, but, of course, the most obvious is its basic growth. I mean cable has gone from a small mom and pop kind of industry to basically providing communications to 75 percent of the homes in America, so you have a huge growth phenomenon that’s happened that is what — terribly significant.
INTERVIEWER: That was a badly phrased question so…
SERMERSHEIM: It’s a hard one.
SERMERSHEIM: I don’t think you can think of Women in Cable and Telecommunications as a traditional organization, as really a traditional professional society, ’cause while it does serve to help people perfect their professional skills it also works on enabling us all to lead a better life on the human side of the equation — and that’s truly what makes Women in Cable and Telecommunications so very special. She liked that one.
INTERVIEWER: How do you see WIC evolving in the next century?
SERMERSHEIM: I think WIC will continue to evolve and change because the needs of its members are going to change and we’re already seeing that today. Our most difficult problems today have to do with the personal side of life.
INTERVIEWER: How do you see WIC evolving? How do you see WIC evolving as we move into the next century?
SERMERSHEIM: I do believe that WIC is going to involve — I do believe that WIC is going to evolve and change a great deal in the next few years because the needs of its members are changing. What most of us face today that we haven’t thought about before is how to deal with the stress of this business life as it becomes faster and faster — how to cope, how to deal with family and business. How to provide more support for our children, how to have a better family life and Women in Cable and Telecommunications is very well suited to help people address these questions and to share the ways in which we can all lead a better life tomorrow.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any strategies that might be useful for women and men as well in trying to lead a better life?
SERMERSHEIM: I think it has — the strategy I would recommend is that the realization has to come that career isn’t the most important thing. Now that may sound strange coming from one who has sort of devoted her life to her own career at the expense of family, but I see the next generations starting to develop the awareness that — that this golden rainbow or golden ring we’ve all been chasing over the years isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and that there’s the price being paid for that chase that’s too great in terms of our children and that we really are going to have to go back to concentrating on the most important thing which is family.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think WIC could help spread that message?
SERMERSHEIM: Well, it’s been doing that along the way. I mean we’ve dealt with issues like child care that certainly no other organization has even thought about — life balance — and you help by bringing people together to talk about these issues, by bringing experts in that can add enlightenment to the questions.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think your involvement with WICs contributed to your professional growth?
SERMERSHEIM: I think my involvement with Women in Cable contributed a great deal to my professional growth. It, for one thing, gave me a lot of practice at things like public speaking, which I was terrified to do before I got involved with the organization, perfected the organizational skills and made me see another side of life — again the more personal side and in being more aware of that it has made me a better manager.
INTERVIEWER: Could you describe your personal management style?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh, that’s a little difficult because I’ve had the good fortune to be blessed with the same incredibly good direct reports for over ten years — in some cases closer to 20 — so it’s hard to describe your management style when people have been together that long, but I think in a nutshell it’s pretty much because I have the experience to [???] the organization to stay fairly hands off on most things and to try and find occasionally those areas where, you know, we need to be thinking of the future a little more and do some creative thinking.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think your personal management style has changed at all during the last 20 years?
SERMERSHEIM: Oh, absolutely. I think everybody’s does, but maybe again because of Women in Cable and other things that it’s become more in tune with the human side of the business.
SERMERSHEIM: I’ve been privileged for the last two years to have been involved with the National Cable Center, which is in the process of fund raising and beginning to build a facility on the University of Denver campus in Denver. It’s an outstanding organization that’s dedicated to helping — grow our business in the future in many and varied ways.
The National Cable Center will be a place for people to come to learn more about the cable television industry, to do research and study the cable industry, but it will also have a very aggressive outreach program so that you don’t have to come to Denver to learn more about cable. You can sit in your home and have access to a tremendous amount of history and current research in our industry.