From franchise to programming: jobs in cable television

From franchise to programming: jobs in cable television

Michael Stanton

From Franchise to Programming: Jabs in Cable Telenision

Thirty-five years ago, while much of the country was laughing at the television antics of Jimmy Durante and Howdy Doody, the residents of Lansford, Pa., switched on their sets to find nothing but snow and static. The Allegheny Mountains shielded them from broadcast signals emanating from Philadelphia, 70 miles to the southeast. To counter this problem, a master or community antenna was erected atop a nearby mountain, wire was run into the town–and cable television was born.

Today, parts of every State and several U.S. territories are wired for cable television. Over 6,000 cable systems, serving more than 17,000 communities and more than 37 million households, are in operation. These systems offer a variety of programs directed toward equally varied audiences. From reruns of I Love Lucy to live cablecasts from the U.S. House of Representatives, from college classrooms offering courses for credit to bone-bruising brawls at the local football stadium, cable TV brings the action into the Nation’s living rooms. It even offers you the chance to produce, direct, and star in your own show on local public-access channels.

But cable television is much more than a program you can switch on or off. It is a multilevel-communications industry with assets and revenues in the billions of dolars. To plan, install, and maintain the complex network of cable and equipment, manage the system’s operations, and provide programming and services requires a wide variety of skills and expertise. This article takes a look at some of the key jobs at every level of the cable industry. You’ll see who is involved from the time a city or locale announces its intention to construct a system until the time you pop the corn, prop up your feet, and sit back to enjoy an evening’s entertainment.

Winning the Franchise

Commercial television stations operate under a Federal license. Cable systems operate under a franchise, usually awarded by local governments.

Franchising is a complex, competitive process. The first step is a decision by a community to construct a system. Generally, a cable TV commission is formed to undertake a series of studies and public hearings to determine what sort of system a community wants. Frequently, the city or commission may employ a telecommunications officer or hire a consultant to assist them. Some organizations, such as the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (NFLCP) or the Cable Television Information Center (CTIC), offer information and guidelines to assist communities in the process.

When a decision is reached as to the nature of the system that a community wants, the commission calls for bids or issues a request for proposals (RFP). The RFP typically requests information on the following: Application fee; deadline date; TV and radio broadcast signals to date; TV and radio broadcast signals to be covered; extent and type of local origin programming; equipment and staff; system layout and design; number of access channels; kind of services to schools and governments; construction schedule; channel capacity and rate schedule; and applicant’s experience in the field.

To respond to these requests, interested companies must undertake extensive studies of the community. Many of the larger systems employ franchising teams who specialize in this complex process. The National Cable Television Association (NCTA) profiles who’s involved in their booklet, Careers in Cable:

“An engineer is part of the franchise team. This person is responsible for conducting extensive topographic studies which determine how difficult the construction phase of the system will be, what type of equipment will be needed, and where the headend (electronic control center) and antennas will be. A market analyst prepares studies to estimate the expected percentage of penetration within the community. Demographic studies are conducted by a researcher; this aids in determining the kinds of programs which would best serve the needs of a particular community. Based on these studies, programmers select specific program packages which will be offered through the system. While the programming proposal and construction details are being developed, a financial analyst determines the cost of the proposed plan and recommends sources of financing for the system.’ When all of these plans are complete, they are submitted to the community for study and evaluation.

Competition for these lucrative franchises does not end with the submission of bids. Intense lobbying and public relations campaigns are waged to convince decisionmakers of the advantages of a company’s proposal. Competing companies maintain their own public relations staffs to handle these efforts. Companies may enlist politically wellconnected community members to assist them in their campaign.

Building the System

Once a franchise has been awarded, the way is set for the construction of the system. According to the NCTA, construction is frequently contracted out to local companies; or, if the system is a large company or multisystem operator, an inhouse construction team may be used.

The initial step in the construction phase is the erection of the master antenna and the headend. The headend is the electronic control center of the system, where the broadcast signals received by the antenna are converted into frequencies for distribution along the cable. The engineer supervises the construction of the headend and will be aided by skilled electronics technicians. Satellite technicians may be employed as well to assure that satellite dishes are properly installed.

Plans for the cable network must be developed. Workers called strand mappers plot the network, determining the layout of the cable both above and below ground. The cable network has various components. The trunk line is the principal artery; it runs from the headend through the community. Other segments called feeder lines are connected to the trunk line to serve specific neighborhoods. Households that subscribe to the system are joined to the feeder lines by drop lines.

Assisting the strand mapper is a worker known as the easement coordinator or right-of-way coordinator. This person negotiates agreements and secures permits for the placement of the cable on private property.

When the strand mapper’s work is completed, actual construction of the system begins. Construction workers handle these tasks, digging trenches where the cable is to be placed underground. Line installers and cable splicers will lay the trunk lines and run the feeders into neighborhoods and be responsible for their maintenance when the system begins operations.

Running the System

Approximately 80,000 people are employed at the system level nationwide, including single system and multisystem operators. This figure–though very low–represents more than a threefold increase over the system work force in 1976. More than two-thirds of these workers have jobs of a technical nature.

The primary responsibility for system installation, operation, and maintenance rests with the chief engineer. This person will usually have a degree in electrical engineering coupled with strong managerial skills and experience. Support is provided by a team of trained technicians. A five-step career ladder for these technicians is fairly well defined and again NCTA’s career booklet provides a look at the different rungs:

The general classification of plant maintenance technician applies to people involved in the physical maintenance of a cable plant and network. These five steps are:

1. Installer–prepares the customer’s home for cable; explains the operation of the system; describes available channels and programming; installs feeder lines; performs minor troubleshooting.

2. Trunk technician–repairs failures in main line or feeder lines. Problems in the trunk line can shut down the entire system. Hence, close maintenance is required.

3. Service technician–responds to problems from subscribers. The service technician is called on to correct electrical malfunctions as opposed to the actual physical repair of the plant.

4. Bench technician–operates system’s repair facility; replaces broken or malfunctioning equipment.

5. Chief technician–supervises technical staff and performs occasional fieldwork on complex problems; primary responsibility is to monitor and maintain complex headend equipment.

All of these jobs usually require a high school degree and some training in electronics, although some companies do provide on-the-job training for inexperienced workers. Technical and trade schools are the most frequent sources of this training. According to industry sources, however, many of the technicians presently employed in cable received initial electronics training while serving with the Armed Forces.

The cadre of technicians is crucial to the operation of a cable system. But there are other jobs that must be filled capably for the business to run effectively. Skilled administrators and support staff are needed to manage the system and assure smooth customer relations. Accountants, clerks, and other financial personnel are needed to prepare budgets, pay the bills, and manage the books. And, increasingly, cable systems require marketing, sales, and advertising specialists to promote the product to the public. Some examples of jobs in each of these fields follow.

One person has direct daily contact with system subscribers. This is the customer service representative. This person’s job is to answer customers’ calls for service and relay requests for service or installation to the technical staff.

The accounting and bookkeeping staff keeps a close eye on the system’s finances. Unlike commercial broadcast stations which depend upon advertising revenues for their financial survival, cable systems rely principally upon individual subscribers. These subscribers pay a monthly rate for basic services and additional charges for premium services that a system offers. Monthly subscriptions must be tallied and mailed, bills and salaries paid, and financial strategy devised and enacted.

Cable systems face stiff competition. Commercial stations, direct broadcast satellites, movie theaters, radio, video cassette recorders, and even newspapers vie for the same audiences. In response to these challenges, many systems employ marketing teams to devise strategies to attract subscribers. Direct mail campaigns, phone networks, and door-to-door selling are some of the tactics used to garner the new viewers and retain the old. A marketing director oversees these efforts. An important member of the marketing team is the researcher, who conducts studies similar to those undertaken during the franchising battle.

New subscribers are not the only customers cable seeks to attract. Increasingly, systems are selling advertising time to supplement their revenues. Local merchants find that cable is reaching nearly as many people as newspapers. An advertising staff handles these duties.

Supervising all the departments of the system is the general manager, who is responsible for conducting the day-to-day affairs of the system. This position requires a college degree. The marketing director and researcher typically are college graduates with degrees in marketing. A high school education is the basic requirement for most of the entrylevel administrative positions. Jobs higher up the ladder may require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Programming and Production

The large number of channels available and the ability that cable affords to “narrowcast’ or target specific audiences have led to what James Roman, in his book Cablemania, calls a “plethora of programming services.’ Some of this programming is produced locally. These local productions generally take two forms: Public access programming, which is produced on a volunteer basis by community members; and local origination programming produced by the cable company itself.

Public access programming is grassroots television, viewed by many people to be an electronic extension of one of our basic freedoms, the freedom of speech. Franchises frequently mandate that system operators set aside channels for use by the public, educational institutions, and local governments or for lease on a nondiscriminatory basis. NCTA estimates that over 1,000 systems offer access channels across the country.

Management of access centers is usually handled by one of three entities: The cable system, a nonprofit corporation, or a local library or educational institution. It’s the responsibility of these bodies to develop guidelines and regulations for the operation of the center and to hire a staff to run it. The principal employee is the access coordinator. This person may also be called the director of public access or the access facilitator. Specific responsibilities will vary from system to system, but general duties may include such tasks as conducting educational campaigns to inform the public as to what public access is and how they may participate; training users in the studio and production skills; advising users in preparation of their productions; developing programs for the access channel; and scheduling programming and equipment use.

A number of technical prouction personnel assist the access coordinator in the operation of the access center. Many of these same positions are found in local origin programming and are discussed in the following section.

Local Origin Programming

Many cable systems produce their own programming. According to a 1980 survey conducted by the NCTA, over 1,000 systems provided local origination programming to their subscribers. More recent data are unavailable, but it is likely that this number has increased. These programs are generally educational or instructional in nature and frequently produced in cooperation with local schools, colleges, and libraries. Some systems maintain their own news staffs to report on local events that may not receive the attention of the other local media.

Cable systems that produce such local programming usually employ a director of local origination. Acting in concert with the marketing staff, the director determines what sort of programming the community desires and supervises its production. The director usually possesses a college degree and has considerable production experience. The ability to manage technical personnel is a must.

These personnel include a studio manager or technician who repairs equipment, sometimes operates cameras, and performs overall trouble shooting around the studio. The assistant director prepares the studio for production. General duties include the proper placement of props and equipment and double checking to make certain that the equipment is operational.

Sound and lighting technicians are key workers in any studio. The audio technician monitors and synchronizes microphones and may handle the audio control board during production. The lighting technician arranges and controls the huge banks of lights needed on a studio set. Any visual image, from a painting that hangs on your living room wall to the scene portrayed on your TV screen, is affected by the play of light. Improper lighting can detract from the mood a director is trying to convey. A college degree in communications is usually a prerequisite for the assistant director’s position. Technicians.’ jobs require a high school education with a background in electronics and production.

One of the most important people in local origination programming is the producer. This person exercises considerable creative input in any production. Job duties include selecting a cast and establishing production schedules. Preparation of scripts and suggestions for camera angles and shots are within the producer’s purview. In small systems, producers may be contracted for one show; in larger systems they may be a member of the permanent staff. A producer will likely have a college degree.

Satellite program services provide a large portion of cable programming. Using satellites to transmit their shows to cable systems, these services offer an eclectic array of choices to the viewer. Entertainment, sports, news, and educational programs plus a host of others are available for a fee or are included as part of the basic cable package.

According to the Cable Television Information Center (CTIC), “The bulk of positions open at these companies are in affiliate relations–marketing and sales–and involve making contract arrangements with individual cable operators or multisystem headquarters to carry a service.’

Most of these services offer programs that are produced by major production houses. Some, however, maintain their own production teams. Several of the news and public affairs services, for example, employ newswriters, reporters, and editors in addition to technicians and other production personnel.

The possibility of job openings also exists at some of the regional sports networks, also known as “interconnects.’ CTIC reports that “service representatives, advertising representatives, and production assistants will be in particular demand at these services.’

Interactive Cable

One area that is really only beginning to be explored is interactive cable. With this technology, subscribers can transmit information as well as receive it. James Roman, in Cablemania, provides some insight into these advanced cable services. Interactive systems employ digital electronic computer technology that is integral to any two-way system. Each subscriber is equipped with a two-way terminal attached to the cable. The terminal stores messages and can relay them to a central computer. Thus, according to Roman, “A vast array of services, from shopping to political polling, come within reach of every cable subscriber.’ Home security services can also be provided via interactive cable. In 1982, over 12,000 cable security systems provided burglar protection and fire alarms.

To what extent interactive cable will grow is open to question. Some industry sources argue that initial growth projections for these services are overly optimistic. Not only are these services expensive, they also raise troubling questions as to the potential for invasion of a household’s privacy. “Many legal issues must be debated before the expansion of computer-enhanced cable services. The issue of privacy reaches the very fabric of our society. Although technological advancement is essential, it cannot take precedence over the individual’s right to privacy,’ says Roman.

A Growing Industry

Employment at the cable system level has increased regularly since the mid-1970’s. According to the Federal Communications Commission, which maintains statistics on employment within the cable industry, employment increased by 13 percent in 1983 and 14 percent in 1984. Cable television has been compared to broadcast television in the 1950’s. Opportunities are available at entry level and above, but competition is keen and can be expected to remain so. That is no reason for discouragement, according to industry sources. With persistence and planning, you can find a job in cable TV.

COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group