Interview Date: July 31, 2018
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Note: Audio Only
Cocoros: Hi, I’m Lela Cocoros and this is the Independent Cable Show in Anaheim, California. It is the 31st of July 2018, and I’m here with Rob Shema, who is EVP of member services for the American Cable Association. Rob, welcome.
Shema: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Cocoros: It’s been a great show so far.
Shema: I hope so. I hope the members are really enjoying it. We’ve had a lot of great success gathering speakers and creating the right content, I think, for our members. And I’m hearing a lot of good feedback from the members about the sessions they’re attending and the show floor, and it’s very vibrant so it’s exciting. It takes you back to the old days of cable when we used to have the Cable Show.
Cocoros: It does actually. OK, so let’s start with how you got into cable, what kind of brought you into the industry, a little bit about yourself and your career.
Shema: So what brought me into the industry goes back—I started actually in the music business. And when I was in the music business, I was working for a few different folks and my wife and I—at the time she was my girlfriend—were moving to Philadelphia. And we moved to Philadelphia and I was going to go to work for a gentleman by the name of Steve Mountain, who had Cornerstone Management Company. And when I got to Philadelphia, Steve had actually sold the business to his brother. So no more music business opportunity for me. I had to re-invent my career at that time and went back to paralegal school at Villanova University. When I graduated—at the same time, my wife and I had gotten married—she was working for a company called NovaCare. When she was at NovaCare, she was the assistant to the chairman of NovaCare. And NovaCare was doing a deal with this gentleman by the name of Pat Croce. And Steve Mountain was actually his manager. And they came in, and Steve Mountain looked at my wife’s nametag and said, “Brenda Shema, are you related to Rob Shema?” She said, “Yes.” He kind of said, “Well, what’s he doing?” And she told him that I was at paralegal school. He was like, “Is he still interested in the music business?” She said, “Yes. And trying to figure it out.” He said, “Well, I might have something for him.” I think Steve called down to Comcast, who was about to do the deal with Pat Croce to buy the 76ers, and the buildings, and they were going to have a music business. It just so happened at the same time, Arthur Block, the vice-president at the time of legal at Comcast Corporation, was looking for a paralegal. And I was graduating paralegal school and I went in and Arthur liked me and Stanley Wang, the general counsel, liked me, so I ended up being Comcast’s first ever paralegal. With the intent that I was always going to move down to the music side when they finally closed the deal on the music side. That never happened. I got cable into my blood and ended up staying on the cable side.
Cocoros: What year was that, or timeframe?
Shema: That was 1995.
Cocoros: All right, well. So it’s been 20+ years in the industry, and I hear you’re going to be inducted into the Cable Pioneers this year.
Shema: I am.
Shema: Thank you very much. I’m very excited. It’s a true honor to be inducted into the Cable Pioneers. I don’t know if I’m worthy, I don’t know if it’s just an age thing, or if I’ve actually made the commitment and contribution worthy to the industry. I hope so. I enjoyed my time at Comcast and all of the growth and things that we experienced there. And I think what we’ve contributed to the industry from that perspective, and my time there, all the things that I did there, as well as working with the independent operators and hopefully giving them a leg up and having them contribute to the industry. So I see myself more as somebody that enables others than really does anything myself.
Cocoros: Behind the scenes.
Cocoros: So talk a little bit about how you transitioned from working for Comcast, which is obviously the big guy, and joining ACA and representing the smaller independent operator.
Shema: So I get asked that question a lot, or I got asked it a lot throughout my career. And it really wasn’t that much different if you can believe it. When I started at Comcast, I had interactions everyday with Mr. [Ralph] Roberts, and Brian Roberts, and Julian Brodsky. Folks that created the business and were true entrepreneurs. When I joined Comcast, it was much smaller, and it was much more interactive, and you had much more interaction with the senior leaders, the folks that actually built the business. And so when I transitioned over to the small guys, it was like working for a bunch of Mr. Roberts’s. It was just terrific in that I got to go back to that entrepreneurial stage and work with folks that were truly building businesses. When I joined Comcast, they had maybe 2.6 million subscribers and a little tiny piece of QVC. When I left, they had numerous television networks and about 27 million subscribers. So Comcast had transitioned into a much larger company. I don’t know that I did. So when I moved over to ACA, it was just like coming home for me.
Cocoros: Nice. Who were the people in the industry who influenced you? We talked about obviously the Roberts’s and Julian Brodsky. But are there other people who have molded you over the years in the industry?
Shema: I have been so fortunate. I’m going to tell way too long stories and you can definitely cut them out if you like. But I think I need to share them because I’ve just been so blessed to be touched by so many great influencers and so many great mentors in my life.
I mentioned earlier Arthur Block hired me, and he’s now the EVP and general counsel of Comcast Corporation. What an amazing man. If they don’t teach the E! Entertainment Television acquisition at Harvard Business School, they should. Because Arthur, just the way he built that transaction, was brilliant. He is incredible from a perspective of structuring a deal. Our President might be “king of the art of the deal,” Arthur is the king of the structure of the deal. And being able to work with him one-on-one in such a close proximity and basically being his assistant and being part of how he structured deals and learning from him was just an amazing opportunity. I then went into the cable division and a gentleman by the name of Mike Tallent, who was the president of Storer Communications at one time, the largest operator in the country. He was Comcast Cable CFO at the time. And he would take me in on Friday afternoons after the week had ended, and basically talk to me about what Comcast Cable had gone through in that week from a financial perspective. Just learning from him and seeing how he dealt with different transactions and how he focused the business and how he dealt with issues and challenges and problems the company faced was just an amazing learning opportunity.
Then Steve Burke came along. And I tell people, I was so fortunate because I didn’t need to go to the Harvard Business School, I went to the “Steve Burke Business School.” Sitting four doors down from Steve and watching him deal with people, how he managed people and how he led an organization from a small family-type background to the big conglomerate it is today. He actually kind of dragged the company in that direction. And watching him lead that transition was just an amazing opportunity.
Then lastly, I went out and worked for Mike Doyle at Comcast—my last position at Comcast was working for Mike Doyle, who’s president of the eastern division. Mike is a legend in the industry and everyone knows him. But I got to know him really close and it was really great. I’d come up with different problems and go to him, and Mike was just kind of this guy. It was just fascinating to watch his mind work. I’d ask him a question, he’d stare at me for a little bit, not say anything. Had a guitar in his office. He’d pick up the guitar, strum a few notes looking out the window, and I’d be wondering, “OK, am I going to get the answers or am I in trouble here/” All of a sudden, Mike would turn around and say, “You need to go do this, this and this.” And it was just amazing to watch how he had throughout the years dealt with all these problems that I was thinking were new. He already knew the answers and it was great to see him focus and work and how his mind worked to help me solve problems.
Now, I probably work for one of the greatest guys in the industry: Matt Polka. I mean, there’s no better boss, no better person to take me into this stage of my life than somebody like him who is a truly passionate person about the industry and about the people we work with and for.
Cocoros: That’s great. A lot of people there that are—
Shema: Sorry there’s so many, but I’ve been so fortunate.
Cocoros: —well-known names. That’s great. Of all your accomplishments in the industry, which one stands out as the most impactful for you?
Shema: So, again, as I started, I don’t know that I’m so much the guy as BASF. I kind of make everybody I work with better in my mind. It’s not about me, it’s about the goals and objectives whether it’s the company or the people that I’m working with. And one of the things I think was great to look back on and say I was part of was the launch of high-definition television. When you look at where we’ve come as an industry from broadcast channels to broadband and beyond, HD was an interesting transition for the industry. And folks were like, are we going to make money with this? How are we going to do this? What are we going to do? My boss at the time was a gentleman by the name of Michael Snyder. And Michael just believed, from day one, in HD television, and just thought we needed to be there. And kind of dragged Comcast Corporation from the little Eastern Division, dragged the whole corporation into this HD frontier, and got Comcast engineers to buy in and start working on it. I had to go out and do the first HD deal. And the only HD programming in the country at the time was with PBS. And the Philadelphia PBS station didn’t have it actually. It was up in Boston. So we had to work this very complicated deal to get the folks in Boston to give the rights to the folks in Philadelphia and get the folks in Philadelphia to actually start airing this content when no one had the ability to receive it at the time. And we accomplished it all, and Comcast’s eastern division was the first to launch HDTV. I know it was the first for the company. I think we were probably the first in the country, and it was just amazing. We did it with one channel. Now everything’s HD, right?
Cocoros: I remember at the Western Show one year, there were all these companies that were demonstrating it. Like Sony and all of that. They had pictures of flowers. Just so beautiful. These ladybugs on these leaves and things like that. It was mind-blowing. You never really thought that television could get better visually, and then you saw something like this and you just freak out.
Shema: It was just amazing. When we went and saw the signal for the first time at the Philadelphia PBS station, it was just, wow. Just brilliant. It wasn’t too long after that that the Discovery (Channel) came along, and all the cable nets started to jump in with their own HD content. But it was just an amazing opportunity and it is something I’ll look back on for the rest of my life as being part of, that was really exciting.
Cocoros: So let’s talk a little bit about where we are today in the industry, and what you consider like the biggest challenge the industry faces from your perspective and from the ACA’s perspective.
Shema: I think there’s a lot of things going on in the industry from a merger consolidation standpoint and how that’s all going to shake out. What are going to be the threats? You look at wireless, you look at 5G, you look at all kinds of different technologies. I think it depends where you are in the ecosystem as to what your threat is. You look at 5G, and if I’m Comcast, I have to get into the mobile business because 5G is going to play a huge role in NFL cities. When you get out into where my members operate, I think you have to figure out how 5G works and how wireless works, but are they going to be part of the solution by being the backhaul in building the fiber for these 5G networks? Are they going to go move into (that) business? You see the larger operators really jumping into the enterprise big business solutions. Is there an opportunity for midsize and smaller operators to play a role in that enterprise solution? As companies grow and become global, and the US becomes even more global than it is today, what’s going to be the role for the smaller independent operator as the true fiber backbone in these rural parts of America? So I think there’s a lot of challenges, there’s lots of threats, but there’s also lots of opportunities for members as they look at how they build their networks and the investment they make in their networks, and how they drive fiber deep into their network, so they can help with the globalization of the world’s economy.
Cocoros: So if you have a small independent cable system, when you’re looking at the future and you’re talking about a lot of opportunities, if you were an independent operator, how would you approach some of these new technologies? Earlier today we heard, always start with the customer, right? Are the customers in rural communities, are they making the demands that those customers in larger urban locations are, or is there a difference in terms of customers, in terms of what they’re looking for?
Shema: I think the answer is, it depends, right? If you’re in rural America, we heard today on the wireless panel, they’re looking for how do they manage their tomatoes, and how do they manage their water sources, and all of those kinds of things from a wireless perspective. I think the demands depend on where you are. But even in rural America, we have a member—I’ll call him out because he does such a great job I think in service to his community—by the name of Earl Kuhn. Earl built his system. In 1967, Earl was the guy, he was working for a cable operator during the day and at night, he and his father were out stringing cable in the next town over, which would turn out to be his system. And I just had a conversation with Earl the other day in that there’s lots of folks moving from the Baltimore and Philadelphia area into his rural mountain markets in the mountains of Pennsylvania as they retire. And he’s working with his retirement community because they’re saying we want all the bells and whistles that we had in Philadelphia and Baltimore from (Comcast’s) X1. Well, how does an operator with 2,000 subscribers offer X1?
Shema: He’s looking at Mobi and TIVO and how can you do that? So the thing about these smaller operators are from Dick Gessner to Earl, they’ve always figured out a way to do what they need to do in rural America when the solution wasn’t available to them in the industry. They would figure it out and get it done. I think Earl’s going to come up with a solution for his customers. Will it be X1? No, it won’t be X1. But it will be close enough. And I think that’s what’s going to happen for our members is when folks want a GB, they’ll figure out how to get them what they need. Whether that’s truly a GB, or something a little bit less, or if they need 10 GB. They’ll figure out what the customer needs and how to get it to them—
Cocoros: And deliver it.
Shema: Deliver it. Absolutely.
Cocoros: That’s fascinating. I guess it reminds me a lot of the old days of cable with the larger companies where you just find a solution, figure it out and you use the materials that you have in front of you or whatever—much like the Apollo 13 analogy where they had to throw all those things that were up in the air in the aircraft, and figure out a way to bring them down.
Shema: It could happen. So that’s what our guys do every day. They find a way to make it happen.
Cocoros: Is there anything else you’d like to add…?
Shema: So I didn’t tell one good story, and I’m going to tell it at the Cable Pioneers. So if you do release it, it will take the thunder out of my Cable Pioneers, but I know Mr. Brodsky will be in the audience, and I have to tell his story because he’s a true mentor, he was a true supporter, he actually wasn’t my second, but lobbied for me to make it into the Pioneers and I’m still a paralegal, right? And Julian Brodsky was the vice-chairman of the company. I was this little paralegal and he just took me under his wing. The story about how he took me under his wing is a great one. So I was maybe about two weeks into the job, I’m a nervous new guy, just first time at a big corporation. I’d always been in the music business, which was always not big corporations. So I was working for this large corporation—it was not large (as it is now), but it was a large corporation at the time. And my first real legal job. I come into the office one day and there’s a pile of paper clips and a little yellow Post-It note that says, “Paper clips don’t grow on trees. JAB.” And I said, “What’s this?” Right? So I take the Post-It note and I go into my boss, Arthur, and I say, “Art, what’s this?” He kind of smirks at me, and says, “You have to go see Stanley,” who was his boss, Stanley Wang. So I go into Stanley and Stanley says, “Oh, you’ve got to make an appointment with Mr. Brodsky.”
“I have to make an appointment with Mr. Brodsky?” He was like, “Yep. Take that over to his secretary, Diane, and get an appointment.” So I went over—I had known Diane, I’d been working with her on some documents—and I said, “I got this note.” She was like, “OK. Mr. Brodsky can see you at like 4:30 in the afternoon.” I sweat all day and I go in to Mr. Brodsky’s office. And to those of you in the listening world who don’t know Julian Brodsky, he’s about 6’4”, about 240 pounds with a huge bellowing voice. And I go in and I hand him the note and he says, “Do you know who JAB is?” And I said, “No.” He says, “What’s my name?” And I said, “Julian Brodsky?” He says, “My middle initial is ‘A’.” I said, “OK.” He says, “Comcast didn’t get to where it was by throwing paper clips away.” So he taught me the lesson that even as vice-chairman of the company, he’s watching. He’s watching every paper clip that was tossed in the trash can, and that attention to detail has pulled me through the rest of my career. From that point on, Julian and I just hit it off and he just always just watched out for me. It was just an amazing story in my life that I wanted to share with everyone else because it just really shows the attention to detail, but the heart of the man as well. How focused he was on the business, how much he cared about the company, and how much he cared about the employees who worked there.
Cocoros: That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that. That’s wonderful.
Well, Rob, thank you for your time and congratulations on a very successful show.
Shema: Thank you very much. I’m glad you guys are all here and participating in it.
END OF INTERVIEW