Cable Operators

Cable's 'People Person'

5/25/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

For the last 50 years, Bill Bresnan has built cable systems from scratch, run small and large cable companies — including the country's largest MSO at the time — and has been at the forefront of technological developments spurring, among other things, the advancement of satellite transmission and fiber optics.

Bresnan has proven that sub-suburban and rural cable systems can be just as technologically advanced and profitable — if not more so — than large, urban operations. And, all along the way, he has become one of the industry's most widely respected and well-liked executives.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) put it this way: “I have always known I could trust Bill.”

Similarly, Bresnan's cable colleagues admire his business acumen as well as his integrity and dedication to the industry.

“With everything we've seen in the business world in the last two years, it's incredible anyone can stay in the same industry for 50 years and keep his reputation intact. Bill has done just that,” said Rocco Commisso, CEO of Mediacom Communications. “He exemplifies everything that is the best of the cable industry. He's an entrepreneur and a visionary. And, he's easy-going, kind and always considerate of others.”

Without question, Bresnan can be a tough negotiator, said Cable Center CEO Larry Satkowiak. “But he treats everyone with the same level of respect that he would like to be treated with and that goes a long way,” he said.

“Everybody wants to cooperate and work with Bill,” said Liberty Media chairman John Malone. “He has busted his butt to help the industry and is selfless on every level. But he is also good at what he does. He's been in every aspect of the business, but he's always been an entrepreneur at heart.”

That entrepreneurial spirit was evident at an early age, when as a boy Bresnan filled the chicken coop behind his house with laying hens. The business flourished, until an electrical fire burned the coop — an event that became known in the Bresnan household as the “Easter Sunday Massacre.”

Bresnan's interest in electronics led him to start repairing radios for friends and neighbors. By age 22, he was working at a radio-supply company. While at that job, Bresnan sold cable to a group that was building a CATV system in his hometown of Mantako, Minn. It wasn't long before he was hired as an engineer to build and run the system in Rochester, Minn.

The system was eventually sold to Jack Kent Cooke, who hired Bresnan and his brother Pat in 1965. Within three years, Bresnan was running Cooke's cable operations.

When Cooke wanted to merge his H&B American cable operations with TelePrompTer in 1970, Bresnan wasn't sure it was a good idea. Indeed, it turned out to be a disaster. TelePrompTer — the brainchild of Irving Kahn — was drowning in debt. And to top it off, Kahn was convicted of bribing a local official in Pennsylvania to get a franchise.

With Kahn out of the picture, Cooke put Bresnan in charge. The merger of H&B and TelePrompTer created the largest MSO in the country, and the company was instrumental in pushing for and supporting satellite delivery of programming signals. Although the company was strapped for cash, Bresnan agreed to buy scores of 100-meter satellite receiver dishes for his systems so they could capture signals being distributed via satellite — a move that would change the cable industry forever. By the end of 1976, there were 120 transponders capable of delivering 1,500 cable channels. The industry exploded. Networks launched, cable operating companies were created and technology companies flourished trying to keep up with it all.

After years of backbreaking work, Bresnan turned TelePrompTer around and eventually convinced Cooke to sell it to Westinghouse in 1981. He agreed to stay for three years but had long been itching to start his own company. He formed Bresnan Communications in 1984.

Bresnan joined the National Cable & Telecommunications Association when he took the reigns of TelePrompTer and he has held various board positions ever since. NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow figures Bresnan has the longest running tenure on NCTA's board ever, and he's grateful for it.

“Bill pulls people together,” McSlarrow said. “He's a people person, and he gets along with everyone. But he also helps everyone get along with everyone else.”

Showtime Networks CEO Matt Blank remembers the first time he met Bresnan. “I was just a lowly marketing director at HBO at the time, and Bill was running TelePrompTer,” Blank said. “He was the big dog in the yard. But Bill treated me as a peer, and I have never forgotten that.”

September