A word (or two) with Wide Open West's Colleen Abdoulah

Colleen Abdoulah, Wide Open WestIf Colleen Abdoulah, CEO and chairwoman of the board of Wide Open West (WOW!) wants to give up her day job, she can probably pick something up pretty quickly in the fashion industry modeling the different hats she wears every day as a cable executive and the American Cable Association's (ACA) outspoken proponent for the rights of small cable operators.

Abdoulah, who started at WOW in 2002 and became president-CEO in 2003, is no stranger to high stress jobs that can leave you out on a limb. Before joining WOW!, she was EVP of wireline services at AT&T Broadband, the ill-fated cable arm of the telco that Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) acquired, and, before that, the even-more-stressful job of assistant to the COO and senior VP of cable operations for TCI.

Today she runs an MSO that on one hand looks constantly for ways to get bigger while at the same time keeping the small-company feel for employees and customers. She's also a very active member of the American Cable Association (ACA), where she's an active spokeswoman for the rights of small cable operators.

Abdoulah was also recently named one of FierceTelecom's 2010 Top Women in Wireline.

FierceCable was able to grab a few minutes of her time to ask about the two biggest professional priorities in her life: managing WOW! and advocating for the rights of small cable.

FierceCable: Let's start with WOW! As a small operator built on the bones of Ameritech's cable experiment, you have to cherish every customer you have. What's the secret to keeping them happy?

Colleen Abdoulah: Live by our philosophical statement to deliver an employee-customer customer experience that lives up to our name. We have a 97 percent level of satisfaction rate with employees (and) 94 percent with customers by honoring and sustaining that. It's our key differentiator that affects everything we do.

FC: Something else that affects everything that you do is the disadvantage--with both technology and programming--that you face as a small cable operator. It's impossible to get the price breaks the bigger guys get, so how do you level the playing field?

Wide Open WestCA: You have to be incredibly smart and efficient and productive on your operating costs where you have more control. We're constantly scrubbing our policies, our procedures, our software and integration procedures to see how we can do things faster, better, smarter. We can't afford to waste a dime on costs that we have control over.

FC: Even so, how do you compete with bigger, cheaper players when you enter into their markets?

CA: We're not the lowest cost provider. We can't be. We can never beat them on price nor do we ever want to be the low-cost provider because to me if you compete on price that is a never-ending hole.

FC: To an extent, being a small cable operator puts you in something of a hole. We'll assume you are always looking for ways to bulk up.

CA: We're constantly open and eager to look at acquisitions that are strategic and contiguous to the areas that we operate in.

FC: There aren't that many of them out there. Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) snapped up Bresnan and it looks like Knology has the inside track on Sunflower. How else can you grow?

CA: We're spending a fair bit of capital this hear and over the next couple years extending our plant. When we extend our plant in a Time Warner area or Insight or Comcast, we're not there to compete against Comcast, we're there to offer a choice for the customer and to compete for that customer.

Wide Open West Colleen AbdoulahFC: Frankly, it may not seem that way to the incumbents. And speaking of Comcast--nice segue there, eh?--you can't be making any friends at the Philadelphia behemoth these days with your aggressive stance you've taken before federal regulators looking at their NBC Universal acquisition. Probably only Al Franken has gotten more ink.

CA: (With a laugh.) I'm not going in badmouthing anybody. I'm going in with a very fair and reasonable testimony that says, 'There are some things that are broken. When certain companies have so much market power that the small-medium sized guys have no leverage, that's wrong. Give us some outlets of where we can go. If large players are bad actors, give us somewhere to go to talk about it, get it mediated and resolved in a fair and equitable place. That's a reasonable message.

FC: Sounds fair and reasonable, but that's our definition. Another's definition might be that it's strident and you could be hurting yourself and your company with vocal opposition. Why take that chance?

CA: I've given testimony for two reasons. If you don't do anything you just put yourself in a lose-lose situation; you take what happens and you can't say anything about it because you didn't try. I just philosophically don't believe in that. I think you make an effort to make things better.

FC: But don't you think by putting yourself in the vanguard you risk more damage than others who are acting a little more quietly?

CA: I'm not going in editorializing. Time Warner, all the way down in operators can hear my testimony, nod their heads and go, 'Yeah, that happens.' I'm telling the truth and what I'm asking for is reasonable.

FC: Speaking of reasonable. How do you feel about the retransmission demands the whole industry is facing from broadcasters these days?

CA: The whole retransmission consent process has to be reformed. It's old. It served a purpose when cable was growing by leaps and bounds and the broadcasters were struggling ... and needed some rights, some protections. Over the years it's just been completely flip-flopped. They basically hold us hostage with negotiations. It's not even a negotiation. When retransmission consent comes up they'll tell you what you're going to pay for it and if you don't like it they'll take it off. You can't compete without a broadcast station; it's absolutely must-have and this needs to stop.

Related articles:
2010 Top Women in Wireline: Colleen Abdoulah, Wide Open West
Small cable continues fight to throttle Comcast-NBC merger
ACA's Polka: Unity crucial to success in tough business climate
Franken calls Comcast merger, net neutrality First Amendment issues
Global Broadcasting's bankruptcy filing adds fuel to retransmission fire