O’Hare Hilton, Chicago, Illinois – The “someone” George wanted us to meet was Dr. John Gartley of the Northwestern School of Communications. John was very correct and proper in his questioning of JB and me, but frankly, since technology had been moving so rapidly and he was in an academic, rather than a business environment, his information was quite out of date.
We later discovered the real reason for the meeting was not so much to gather information, but to let George meet us and do a first-hand, face-to-face evaluation of JB and me. Getty was also interested in Dr. Gartley’s personal evaluation of us.
For our part, we were pleased to finally meet the face that went with the phone voice we had gotten to know so well during the past three weeks. George’s cherubic visage combined with his straightforward, no-nonsense approach to business left us in a quandary. On the one hand, he was friendly and enthusiastic, while on the other, he cautioned us not to expect too much from Getty too soon.
We found out exactly what he meant the next day when JB called Evey. Evey’s response to the inquiring call was, “If you have to have an answer today, it’s ‘No.’ Can’t K. S. Sweet fund this project for a little longer?”
So that’s it. Our deadline arrived and we had no financial committment. The New Year’s weekend had arrived and we couldn’t do a thing, except go to a meeting in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, with JB and Tom Cushman on Tuesday, January 2, 1979 to either wind up affairs or (hopefully) stretch just a little longer to see what Getty would do.
That, my friends, was one LONG weekend. The Bowl games didn’t do much for us on New Year’s Day 1979!
New York, NY – Two of the biggest MSOs – Teleprompter and Warner – are located here. As you might expect it’s pretty tough to sell anything to Manhattanites without facts. The meetings went well, but I received nowhere near the “quasi-commitments” I had from other systems in the past several days.
Meeting at their midtown corporate headquarters, I answered a lot of questions at both companies. In the end, neither one was very encouraging and merely asked to be kept informed. Oh well, can’t win ’em all!
I called Tom Hansen at the NCAA and summarized the results of my two weeks of meetings and he was pleased, but then asked about financing.
“Getty is working very closely with us,” I truthfully responded. “One of their problems is the length of time it will take to get a committment from the NCAA.”
“I can understand that,” he said. “I don’t know if we can speed things up, but I’ll tell Walter of your progress with the systems and we’ll talk about it in San Francisco.” (at the NCAA National Convention scheduled in early January 1979). Please keep me up to date with developments.”
Time for my George Conner call. I brought him up to date. “We’ve got customers if we can ever get on the air!” “Great! What are you doing next Wednesday or Thursday? I’d like to meet you and JB in Chicago and have you talk t someone.” (Whatever happened to the ‘quiet’ week between Christmas and New Year’s)?
“Tell me when and where and I’ll be there,” I quickly replied. We settled on 10:00 AM, Thursday, December 28 at the O’Hare Hilton.
Time for the short flight to Connecticut and home for the Christmas holidays. Even though the December 31st deadline was closing in, I had the feeling that something positive would happen to keep us alive. As I walked into the office, I discovered that everyone shared the positive feeling. I chuckled as I noticed the work of the troops in Plainville. They had scrawled an impromptu “Potential Subscriber Scoreboard” on a convenient window. As Ed Eagan and I called the office each day with updates on our meetings, they looked up the potential subscribers available in each system and updated their “Scoreboard.” It wouldn’t pay the bills but it made us feel good.
Posted in Birth of ESPN, Excitement builds
Tagged Ed_Eagan, George_Conner, Getty Plainville, JB, NCAA, O'Hare_Hilton, Plainville, Teleprompter, Tom_Hansen, Warner
Norfolk, Virginia – Had an absolutely great meeting with some fine gentlemen here. Dick Roberts, President of TeleCable, and Gordon (Red) Herring, Vice President, Operations, were gracious hosts with soft, unhurried southern drawls.
They received our plan well. It’s amazing how fast the buzz about “That all sports network” was now moving through the industry and definitely improving our reception with the cable systems. Of course, everyone had a slightly different version of what we had planned, but they had certainly heard of us.
Dick and Red agreed to evaluate our project and determine where sports would fit in their 1979 plans as they added programming to their upgrade systems.
Certainly this was the kind of news that George Conner wanted to hear. I called Getty Headquarters as soon as I left TeleCable. Even though at this point we had not met, a bond was building between George and me…a bond that has blossomed into a strong friendship that is alive and well to this very day.
Approaching nearly three weeks on the road with many stressful and very significant meetings, I was mentally and physically weary. However, there was one more stop with two more meetings remaining before I could return to Connecticut and sleep in my own bed.
Next stop New York City.
Atlanta, Georgia – Just one week ago, I was in Kansas City introducing our concept to the NCAA TV Committee. Seven days, five cities and eight cable system presentations later, I was in and out of Atlanta in four hours or so with some more good news from a major player in the cable industry – Cox Communications.
My two visits here couldn’t have been moe different. Ernie Olsen, Vice President at giant Cox Cable, was positive, enthusiastic and the first guy who really seemed to believe we had a shot at making the whole thing work. That was the good news.
John Janos at Rollins Cable, an MSO more interested in electronic gadgetry than in new programming and marketing, was late for our meeting and offered no encouragement whatsoever. After waiting 30 minutes in his tiny office, I felt I received his seemingly-standard, “We’re not interested in anything new” response and left.
Ever the optimist, I decided Ernie was 100% on target, and John wasn’t smart enough to recognize a good thing when he saw it. Clearly, that opinion reflected our ever-growing confidence in our idea.
I left for Norfolk and my next scheduled meeting in a very good mood.
Check prior posts for more “Early ESPN” history.
Dallas, Texas – After a weekend of anticipation, I really had no idea of what to expect out of my meeting with Sammons Communications.
Jim Whitson, President, jumped right in with enthusiasm. “You,ve really got something here,” he said after I finished my now-standard pitch. I began to feel the “industry buzz” was beginning to have an impact. “We’ll have to look at our channel capacity in each of our systems,” he said, “but if you make it happen, you’ve got a customer.” Now that was the most positive response to date.
Buoyed by this Jim’s enthusiastic statement, I quickly reported to George Conner at Getty Headquarters and left for Atlanta.
You catch up on the opening months of ESPN’s life at https://sportsjunkiesrejoice.wordpress.com/
You can read the whole story in Sports Junkies Rejoice – The Birth of ESPN. Order today and get your 25% Christmas discount at http://espnfounder.com/sjr_discount2011.htm.
Austin, Texas – Another city and another cable system to sell on the ’round the clock – 24/7 sports network. Upon landing, I checked with our office in Connecticut and found that George Conner wanted me to call ASAP.
I picked up the rental car and stopped at the nearest pay phone (yep, no cell phones then – just a pocket full of quarters for the nearest phone booth). I brought George up to date and on a hunch called Community Properties, Inc. (CPI) to confirm that I had arrived and would see Greg Liptak as scheduled.
Imagine my surprise when his secretary told me he was out of town and wouldn’t be back for the rest of the day. She added that she hoped this wouldn’t inconvenience me too much.
I guess it just depends on your interpretation of inconvenience. I had flown from Denver to Dallas to Austin and rented a car which I now returned with just four miles used to the car rental agency and flew back to Dallas. Obviously the stop in Austin hadn’t gone very well.
I spent the weekend at a Dallas/Fort Worth airport hotel wondering what Monday’s meeting with the President of Sammons Communications would bring.
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Denver, Colorado – What a day! Back to United Cable headquarters with our new concept of becoming the cable industry’s first ad-supported network. Gene Schneider and his Regional Managers, Bob Ball and Harvey Boyd, could hardly believe their ears. What they had mentioned tongue in cheek just ten days earlier was now roughly our new plan.
I updated them on my travels of the last ten days – Getty, NCAA, etc. – and they were suddenly enthusiastic. The whole plan was on a single sheet of paper that carried only eleven typewritten lines. “If you pull this off, I want to be your first affiliate,” Schneider said. Now THAT was really good news.
Next stop was just around the corner to TCI – Telecommunications, Inc. – Graham Moore was Vice President of Programming for this huge MSO. He listened attentively and said, “I like your idea very much. This is something TCI will be interested in, but frankly, I don’t see how you can pull it off. I wish you well, but I don’t see how you can do it.”
Talk about emotional highs and lows. Coming on the heels of the positive United Cable visit, Graham’s comments ended this particular Denver visit on a down note.
Summing up the two days in Denver was a bit sobering: One strange visit (ATC); One disbelieving visit to the point of barely concealed smiles (Daniels); One “I want to be our first customer;” and One, “You’ll never pull it off.” Not a promising beginning, but it was time to head for the airport again – destination, Austin, Texas to get acquainted with CPI – Community Properties, Inc.
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Posted in Excitement builds
Tagged ATC, Bob_Ball, CPI, Daniels, Gene_Schneider, Graham_Moore, Harvey_Boyd, JB, NCAA_TV_Committee, TCI, United_Cable
Denver, Colorado – I was scheduled to visit ten major system headquarters in ten days. Ed Eagan was on a parallel path visiting a dozen medium-sized MSOs and independents. We had to get a sense of what the industry decision makers thought of our 24/7 sports idea…and fast – money to continue was hanging on the reactions of these twenty plus systems.
Our plan in Denver was to talk to as many people at high levels as possible and evaluate their reactions so that we could formulate a plan that worked for all systems. Te first stop at ATC – American Telecommunications was strange. (We eventually found out the cause of that feeling in Kansas City at the NCAA TV Committee meeting on January 25).
ATC was definitely not a good start for the trip and the second stop, Daniels and Associates, was even worse. Tom Johnson and Jean O’Grady listened to our pitch with barely concealed humor. Years later, they both told me that after JB and I left, they enjoyed a good laugh, never expecting to see or hear from us again.
The responses were clearly not what we needed…definitely not a good beginning to a long road trip. JB and I decided we had to have a drastic change in our offering. Just ten days ago, United cable had suggested (with tongue in cheek) that we become, “the industry’s first totally ad-supported network.” Since no one seemed interested in our “penny-a-day” theory, we decided on the spot to become primarily ad-supported along with a greatly reduced monthly subscriber fee.
That was the plan as JB left for he airport. I was on my own to introduce our “newest-greatest” plan starting the next morning back at the same place I had introduced the original idea just ten days ago – United Cable.
From a “laying the foundation” perspective, the month of December 1978 was easily the most active and exciting. We had secured the transponder is September, but had made little progress on financing, programming and customers as I left for Denver on December 4th. By December 28th, everything was in motion as you’ll read in the days ahead.
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Kansas City, Missouri – Today was our chance to “meet the boys” of the NCAA TV Committee. We met several committee members on the way into the meeting as they were enjoying a coffee break prior to our presentation at 9:00AM.
We cued up our demonstration tape – a five-minute visual explanation of several points of our proposal along with a 3′ x 4′ map of the United States showing the distribution of current cable systems and we were ready to go. As I glanced around the room I was disappointed to note that Walter Byers was nowhere in sight.
In his gracious manner, Bo introduced JB and me to the committee members and to my pleasant surprise, I noticed that Mr. Byers had arrived and taken the empty chair next to the legendary Texas football coach Darrel Royal. Both sides of the rectangular meeting setup were full, But directly in front of me sat Byers and Royal.
Listening to Bo’s introduction, I must admit that I was momentarily intimidated by the sight of he two powerful men facing me. Stern, sincere Royal, arms folded across his chest, studied us with a non-committal look. Even more imposing, the fabled NCAA czar, Byers, with his shock of white hair and equally impassive expression, waited for my presentation. Bo concluded his intro and we were on.
I told the same story I had told the day before at Getty and essentially told all these NCAA heavyweights what a great new thing we were planning for them. The excitement and enthusiasm were all one way. The reception of the presentation was polite and courteous with a few general questions and it was over. It should be be noted that neither Byers or Royal said a word…matter of fact their expressions barely changed throughout the presentation.
That was it. Bo thanked us and from his comments and some of the questions asked, we had an idea that we would be back for another meeting. Bo repeated his earlier comment about having a great idea and said Tom Hansen would be in touch. That ended the morning and JB and I were off to Denver to talk to the biggest cable TV Multiple System Operators (MSOs).
Wow…think about this: Monday at Getty to talk money; Tuesday with the NCAA TV Committee to talk programming; and Wednesday with cable TV’s corporate elite to talk customers.
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Los Angeles, California – My detour through Los Angeles on my way to Kansas City had me sitting in Stuart Evey’s 18th floor office at 9:00AM. The first thing Evey did was introduce me to Wendell Niles, “A movie producer here in Hollywood.” Niles admitted he didn’t know much of anything about cable television. I didn’t quite get the reason he was there, but nevertheless, plunged in with my, by now, well rehearsed pitch.
For thirty minutes or so I recounted what had transpired since June and concluded by asking for $10 million. Not only did I ask, but I also pointed out that we needed an answer by December 31st. I wasn’t immediately dismissed and Evey said it would take longer than that to analyze the potential of our idea, but he, “…was interested in learning more about the idea.”
A major breakthrough!!! No previous potential investor had shown even this faint flicker of interest. Little did I know as I left for LAX that Evey had more than “a faint flicker of interest.” Unknown to me, almost before I reached the ground floor and walked off the elevator, he was on the phone to his financial manager, George Conner, and…
I’ll let George tell you: “My involvement (in ESPN) began about one minute after Bill left Evey’s office. Evey called and said he had an investment opportunity for me to look at. After I read through the proposal for non-stop sports on cable television, I told Evey the proposal looked interesting enough for us to proceed with further evaluation”
I didn’t know until years later, but all of this happened very quickly while I was on my way to LAX to head for my original destination on this trip – the NCAA TV Committee meeting in Kansas City scheduled for tomorrow. Even without the knowledge of Evey’s obvious interest, I was very positive in my “Here’s what happened” phone call to JB Doherty back in King of Prussia, PA.
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