When Roger Williams was 13, he rode his bike to a Ford dealer twice a week to sit in the car of his dreams: a 1966 Shelby Mustang GT 350, a Mustang remanufactured and dramatically souped up by a California car designer. After a few minutes of daydreaming and lusting, he would inevitably be ordered out.
Thirty years later, when he started making the kind of money cable-network executives can make, Williams worked the network of Shelby cultists and ownership records to track down the very car that had sat in the Hampton, Va., showroom. Turned out, the owner was a friend in California who wasn't selling. Williams had to make do with owning another of the just 2,000 Shelby 350s made. That's in addition to three other cars and five motorcycles, generally recent vintage.
Suffice it to say, Williams is in the right job as executive vice president and COO of Cable Network Services, which runs five-year-old Speedvision and Outdoor Life Network. Although he's in charge of both, it's racing network Speedvision that gets him energized. "I think it's rare in most people's professional lives to marry their career with their personal passions," he says.
Williams' strength is affiliate sales. He started in cable on the system side of the business in 1974, selling door-to-door for Warner Cable in his hometown shortly after leaving Ohio University (where he blew family money slated for his second year's tuition on a 1966 Jaguar XJE convertible).
Moving up fast was easy in cable's early days, and Williams scored by expanding into ad sales for spots on the system's local origination channel-hardly an easy sell.
After a year, Warner made him sales and marketing manager of its Kingsport, Tenn., system, where he helped Warner's first launch of startup pay network Home Box Office, the channel that would revolutionize cable. Kingsport was also an early affiliate of Atlanta superstation WTCG -eventually the core of Ted Turner's cable empire. He lured Turner to a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the enormous $100,000 dish required to take Turner's satellite feed.
Turner was impressed enough to hire him as part of a three-man affiliate sales team-which included current Turner Broadcasting Chairman Terry McGuirk-to convince cable operators that they needed their own programming and his Atlanta Braves games. "Hank Aaron was down the hall. It was pretty cool," Williams recalls.
In 1980, he was tapped by ESPN to do the same kind of job, a move that had him working with Roger Werner, who eventually became ESPN's president.
In 1992, Weather Channel owner Landmark Communications tapped Williams to be president of The Travel Channel, which, after seven years, "was damaged goods," he says. The network had no programming budget, and 75% of its 15 million subscribers got the channel only part time, usually late at night.
After Williams secured paid, full-time carriage for Travel, Werner came calling again. He was looking to start Speedvision and Outdoor Life.
Both were considered too specialized to get broad carriage, particularly since Speedvision didn't have the most popular American car races, Nascar's Winston Cup series. And despite backing from MSOs Cox Communications, Continental Cablevision and Comcast Corp., the networks lacked the distribution clout ESPN had for its new networks.
Werner and Williams had expected their networks to get stuck on thinly viewed digital cable tiers. But operators, slow to launch digital, rolled out the networks on basic. Both are near the 30 million-subscriber mark and just turning profitable. Williams now believes that 50 million subscribers are within reach.