Glenn A. BrittTime Warner Cable's leader is admired for his broad, well-reasoned view of the future of cable 10/17/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern
As a young M.B.A. student at Dartmouth College's Amos Tuck School of Business perused the job board years ago, he figured that he might land a position at a commercial bank.
“In those days for job hunting, you'd sign up literally on a piece of paper that was posted on a bulletin board placed by companies coming to campus,” recalls Glenn A. Britt of that fateful day in 1972. “So when Time Inc. showed up, I thought, 'I read Time magazine, so I'll go talk to them!'”
As his interviews and personal research progressed, he was intrigued that a pillar of the media business—Time Inc.—was diversifying into TV under pressure from an investment community that had turned bearish on its core magazine business. “Going into cable was a very entrepreneurial thing to do” at the time, Britt recalls. “I joined the company because I wanted to be involved in cable.”
Britt was fascinated by Time's foray into cable because “the capital investment required was immense and the prospects for success fairly thin,” he once recalled. “The general belief in the finance community at the time was that there was never going to be enough money to wire America. I thought it could be something bigger.” After that campus interview, he accepted a job in the controller's department and has watched the business grow.
Now, as president and CEO of Time Warner Cable and a new member of B&C's Hall of Fame, Britt is leading the second-largest cable operator in the nation. From his office perched in the Time Warner Center skyscraper on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, he presides over a $17.2 billion-revenue media company with 13.3 million basic video subscribers. At the end of the year, the cable company will be completely spun off by its 84% owner, the TV-film-media conglomerate Time Warner.
Britt has a reputation as a deep thinker about the cable business. He's prominent in raising concerns in public about cable networks placing programming free or with few ads on the Internet while charging cable systems to carry that same programming. He says he's not just posturing Time Warner Cable to pay lower channel carriage fees.
“You are really endangering the whole entertainment ecosystem” with a free-and-pay model, he says. “I'm worried this could turn out badly” for everyone. He points to the music industry, whose economics are being undercut by a shift to digital downloads.
Britt adds, “Usually what I hear back is, 'We think that the Internet is [only hooked] to the PC and so that's different than TV.' Well, to the extent that is a distinction today, I think that it's going to be very short-lived.”
Time Warner Cable as a company seems to get into more than its share of channel blackout brawls with basic cable and broadcast TV stations over disagreements on channel carriage fees. In battles with cable networks, Britt says the company feels it is fighting for consumers by trying to hold down costs, “But I think the reality is consumers tend to see everybody involved as [unsympathetic] large companies and a sort of pox on everybody's house.”
For local broadcast TV channels, Britt says since retransmission consent was enacted in 1992, the majority of broadcast TV viewing by consumers has shifted from over-the-air to subscription TV. “I think as a society we're going to have to ask, do we want an effective tax on consumers to finance over-the-air TV when most people don't watch it that way anymore? I think there are a whole set of questions that are about to be teed up.”
Despite getting into those carriage fee scraps, Britt doesn't see Time Warner Cable as having an aggressive corporate attitude. “We're in the service business, so I don't think it's good if people see us as flamboyant or having a swagger,” he says.
Britt may be an embodiment of that image with a temperate public face, though interrupted with occasional high-spiritedness. It was a risky career move to gravitate to Time Inc.'s unproven cable business, which was foundering when he arrived.
Britt says one of his mentors was former boss and ex-Time Warner co-CEO Nick Nicholas, who recalls, “I was more impressed with Glenn's ability to ask good questions than anything else. He had a way of asking the 'ah-ha!' question. It's an insight in the form of a question from a logical strategic thinker. And he has a non-threatening way to get into complicated gut issues.” Nicholas is now on the board of directors of Time Warner Cable and several other large corporations.
As for the road ahead, strategic thinker Britt sees several challenges. First, regulatory agencies have knocked down walls between media to foster competition, but the media industry is still not deregulated in Britt's view. The remaining rules prop up some players and create artificial winners and losers.
The other challenge is harnessing new technology for new products. The easy part is picking new products to add to a company's wish list of products, but it's hard to know when economics and consumer demand are right to introduce those products in the marketplace.
“The challenge for all of us is to understand what consumers really want, which may be different from what consumers say they want, and may be different from what is possible with current technology,” he observes. “So we're evolving to a more competitive world, and there's continued application of technology.” That means, for him, there's a big future ahead.—Robert Marich
The Big Picture