A Career That Made a Difference
At Cablevision, Mahony enhanced cable's record of public service
By David Hatch -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/2/2004 8:00:00 PM
Cablevision executive Sheila Mahony knows a thing or two about beating the odds. In 1967, she was one of a handful of women in her graduating class at Fordham University Law School. In 1980, when the cable industry was at its infancy and largely the domain of male entrepreneurs, she jumped at an offer from Cablevision founder and Chairman Charles Dolan to join the company. And she has remained there as cable segued from obscure to mainstream.
|2003||Debra L. Lee|
|2001||Kim D. Kelly|
|1999||Judith A. McHale|
|1995||Bobbi L. Kamil PhD|
|1993||Ann L. Burr|
|1991||Ruth L. Otte|
|1990||Geraldine B. Laybourne|
|1989||Gayle L. Greer|
|1988||Lucille E. Larkin|
|1987||Beverly A. Harms|
|1985||Susan C. Greene|
|1984||Sally M. Davison|
|1983||Kathryn Hilton Creech|
|1982||Carolyn S. Chambers|
|1981||June E. Travis|
|1978||Anna Marie Hutchinson|
But her biggest victory came 16 years ago. "I am a cancer survivor," she says matter-of-factly, adding that she suffered through a particularly "hellish year" of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. After colleague and friend Marc Lustgarten, a vice chairman at Cablevision, developed pancreatic cancer, Mahoney and the company's other top executives joined with Marc and others to form the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research to fund medical studies, draw attention to the disease, and increase the odds for victims. Lustgarten died from the disease at 52. Mahony still carries on his struggle as a member of the foundation's board.
Now, after 24 years at Cablevision, she has beat the odds again, this time securing one of the most coveted trophies in the cable profession: the Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership. "I was thrilled. It was certainly not something I expected," she says.
Dolan feels the award is overdue. "It's about time. That's what I said to her. I think she personifies everything in our industry that the Vanguard Award is all about."
Adds Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, who has known Mahony since he was a Capitol Hill staffer in the 1970s, "Sheila is one of the women pioneers on the operating side in this business. She's been involved in every aspect."
Mahony began her career as an attorney representing New York City on cable issues. That's when she first encountered Dolan, who was offering cable in Manhattan under temporary permits and was seeking a long-term franchise to expand. Despite being the junior attorney on the project, she wrote what she dubs "the first urban cable television franchise."
She did something else with that contract that created history: In the franchise agreement, Mahony originated the concept of the public access requirement. "She worked that out—that was the foundation," Dolan recalls. "Ours was the first cable television agreement with public access in it, and I think thereafter there were very few that didn't have it in it."
Because of its entrepreneurial underpinnings, she thinks the cable industry has a reputation as a place where women can make their mark.
"You have very strong women running important sectors of the cable industry, from programming companies to large cable systems," Mahony said. For many years, though perhaps less so today, women have been more prevalent at the highest levels of cable than in broadcasting, she notes.
Mahony wears many hats at Cablevision. In mid-March she officially retired from her position as executive vice president, communications, government and public affairs, which involved overseeing media relations and lobbying efforts. But she's now a consultant to Cablevision in these areas. She also serves as a board member for Cablevision, C-SPAN, and the Legal Aid Society of New York.
Her biggest challenge these days is presenting her company—and the cable industry—in a positive light when press coverage and public opinion are not always favorable.
"Consumer reporters tend to have a very skeptical, almost disdainful, view of cable," she says. "It's extremely difficult to overcome that and to point out to these reporters all the positive things we do for the communities we serve."
She directs the company's educational programs, including Power to Learn, which provides schools with high-speed Internet access and teaching tools. The entry-level service is free, but schools can purchase advanced offerings.
She also oversees the editorials that appear on Cablevision's News 12 Networks, a 24-hour regional cable service in the New York metropolitan area.
"It's another example of Cablevision's dedication to the local community," she says. "These editorials are not about anything that Cablevision has an interest in. They are only about issues that affect the local community."
But Cablevision, with 3 million customers—all in the New York area—has been locked in a very public and controversial battle with the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, which carries New York Yankees Major League Baseball games. YES sought to be on Cablevision's enhanced basic package, but the MSO wanted the network to be a premium channel. A nasty battle ensued, and in March, an arbitration panel ordered the company to make YES available on its enhanced service.
The cable company might have lost that battle, but Mahony maintains, "Expensive products certainly ought to be à la carte." Most cable companies and programmers oppose à la carte service, fearing that customers would cherry pick the popular networks, hurting cable system revenues and marginalizing less popular channels, forcing some out of business.
Not one to back down from a challenge, Mahony is bracing for fresh regulatory and legislative battles with the same drive and determination that's gotten her this far. (Not surprisingly, this political junkie's favorite TV show is West Wing.)
Pulling no punches, she thinks that broadcasters—and not cable companies—should make accommodations over must-carry. While MSOs accept the idea of must-carry obligations, subscribers should have the right to purchase broadcast channels with cable packages as direct broadcast satellite customers do.
"It may be a long way off, but I do think it's the right thing," she says, "and I ultimately I think it will happen." And what about cable carriage obligations for digital TV signals? "I certainly don't think we should have the obligation." Mahony says, "to carry everything that a broadcaster offers."
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