A Q&A with Char Beales, president-CEO, CTAM

No doubt somewhere in her employment contract, Char Beales has been advised to be upbeat. It's likely that she shatters that requirement at every annual review, because as president of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM) she is relentlessly upbeat in promoting the nontechnical, nonregulatory aspects of the cable industry while keeping an eye on the technical and regulatory issues that impact the industry.

Char Beales, CTAM

Char Beales, president and CEO of CTAM, has run the organization since 1992.

Beales, who has run the 5,000-plus member organization since 1992, turned even the most negative questions positive during a Q&A with FierceCable editor Jim Barthold, who, it must be noted, is not known for being relentlessly upbeat.

FierceCable: OK, the softball question. What's hot with CTAM?

Char Beales: Movies-on-demand. Cable has a fantastic offering. The movies are new; they come out on cable the same time they're released on DVD. Cable's window is pretty much a month ahead of Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Redbox ... and it's a reasonable price.

FC: Yeah, but does anyone rent movies on demand? Isn't the bigger play for network and cable shows either individually or in series, as Netflix has shown?

CB: Netflix has struck some deals where they have some product that other people don't have in a whole set and that may be why people want it. From what I've seen in their viewership, movies are still the driver.

FC: While we're on the subject of movies, what do you think of Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH) buying Blockbuster? Will this impact cable's movies on demand business?

CB: I'm puzzled how that fits into their strategy. I can't see exactly how that's going to work, but Charlie Ergen is an amazing innovator and we'll just have to see how he does.

FC: On another subject, you and I have both been around long enough to see the change in cable from a technology-driven industry that was all about programming to a programming-driven industry that's all about the technology. How are your members adapting to having to understand technology?

CB: It's part of the business. The development of new technology is all being driven by competitive pressures. It is one competitive marketplace out there. The satellite guys have great product; the telco guys have great product; cable has great product and they're pushing each other to innovate. The technology enables it and the marketplace demands it.

"We said from the very beginning the key to success for the programmers is to make better programming that more people want to watch and that they can sell to more advertisers."

FC: It seems, at least on the surface, that retransmission consent and higher programming costs that are driving up subscriber cable fees might cause a rift within your membership. On one side, the programming folks are pushing for more money; on the other side, the service provider types need to sell higher fees to subscribers.

CB: It's sort of a conundrum. We said from the very beginning the key to success for the programmers is to make better programming that more people want to watch and that they can sell to more advertisers. They've done that but to make better programming is expensive so you see this continual cycle. It's tough sledding for the marketers to have to be out in the marketplace where there are rate increases.

FC: Does it put you between a rock--operators--and a hard place--programmers?

CB: It really is a big issue for the industry and it puts the traditional competitors--cable, satellite and telco--in the same situation and gives rise to competitors who don't have the cost of the infrastructure, whether they're going over-the-top, online video, where they can undercut our price. And, frankly, many of them just steal the product, unfortunately.

FC: Three words: a la carte.

CB: There have been experiments with it over the years and the majority of consumers have always preferred a bundle. It's hard to know. Many consumers are just a little bit lazy and they like somebody else picking the bundle for them.

FC: Two words: customer service.

CB: Several MSOs have made great strides at improving customer service. Everybody in they industry is committed to making improvements but it is pretty darn complicated.

FC: How so?

CB: Cable plant is not one network ... it's built at different times with different equipment and different configurations. The base of cable is more complicated than our competitors. And then we just keep overlaying more and more complicated products ... and it is a very complicated product.

"...cable is the only set of companies in this space that had to make it on their own private financing. They never got any government handout along the way."

FC: Doesn't the overarching attitude of many within the cable industry--a general lack of humility when dealing with the public--exacerbate things? Cable does have a reputation for arrogance that runs from the top level executives to the field installers.

CB: I think it's more that they're proud that against all odds we've made this a successful industry and changed the world for consumers. As you look back at the history of cable, cable is the only set of companies in this space that had to make it on their own private financing. They never got any government handout along the way. The broadcasters did and the telcos did and the satellite got that gift that they had to have access to cable programming, no matter what. Everybody else got some government handout. I think the cable executives really banded together and proved that we could build an industry on our own. Does that make them arrogant or does that make them feel like they achieved something pretty amazing and they're pretty proud?

FC: OK, obligatory question that everyone asks in every Q&A. What keeps you up at night?

CB: Interactivity. While you and I are still in our jobs, we're going to get that product launched. Seriously, in fairness to cable, every time we come up with a great interactive product we name it something else. Think about the IPG; that's interactive. As soon as that became IPG, we said cable doesn't have any interactivity. Think about on-demand. That's interactive and millions of customers are using it all the time. In fairness, we do have great interactive products that consumers use.

FC: Last question/problem. The cable guy used to be a neighbor; now he's part of a big conglomerate based in Philadelphia or New York or Atlanta and his local system is an outpost. Is there some way to bring back that hometown feel?

CB: All industries have centralized. The entertainment media industry is not alone. Cable has national competition and they have to cut out layers of cost and be more national. You're right, they're not your next door neighbor anymore ... and as a result they bring the consumers a much richer portfolio of products. That's the flip side: You can cost-effectively deliver a broader and better product set.