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Time Warner’s Bill Farmer tackles hot industry issues

When cable television began in 1948 as an alternative television service to households where the reception of over-the-air signals was poor, even visionaries could not have predicted it would expand into a multi-billion dollar industry serving two-thirds of America’s households.

The conveyer of video programming has morphed into a pipeline for delivery of new advanced services, including digital networks, video-on-demand, interactive television, high-speed Internet access and telephony.

Enter Time Warner Cable, formed in 1989 through the merger of Time Inc.’s cable television company, American Television and Communications Corporation, and Warner Cable, a division of Warner Communications. It now has 31 operating divisions and serves more than 19 million homes in 27 states, including Mississippi.

Its services now run the gamut from digital cable to high-speed Internet to high-definition television (HDTV). Last December, the cable giant signed up its millionth phone customer.

Recently, the Mississippi Business Journal asked Jackson-based Bill Farmer, president and CEO of Time Warner’s Jackson/Monroe division, about increased competition, controversial a la carte services and broadband proposals’ effects on the cable industry.

Mississippi Business Journal: The competition from satellite operators and regional Bell companies is putting the squeeze on cable growth just as cable operators were in a position to take advantage of the completion of building its infrastructure. At this point, what is the answer to bringing about growth for cable?

Bill Farmer: Actually, cable is growing quite well in our markets. The introduction of our telephone service and the bundling of our services have enabled us to offer very attractive packages and prices.

We are also adding more channels, high-definition services and on-demand options, all of which keep us competitive and in the forefront.

MBJ: A la carte service would allow consumers to pick and choose the individual cable channels they would like to receive. Why is this a concern for operators?

BF: Offering services on an a la carte basis causes problems not just for cable operators and programming services, but also for the consumer. As with any product, discounts are available based upon the number of households a programming service reaches. This helps determine what the programmer can charge for advertising. If the advertising revenue and the number of households go down because of a la carte, the cost to us, and to a consumer to buy that service, could increase significantly.

A la carte would also require every customer to have a converter on their TV sets and many of our customers today prefer not to have equipment.

We also know that many of the niche programming services would go away if they could not depend on a guaranteed number of households for revenue they collect from both operator and advertisers.

MBJ: With proposals to allow broadband operators to charge for premium access to certain sites, is the fear of consumers and services such as Yahoo and Google overblown? What do cable operators have to say about what some see as a future of limited free access to all sites on the Internet?

BF: The issue of premium access to certain sites is really not an issue we have spent much time thinking about. Cable operators are simply a conduit for users to reach the Internet. We don’t determine the content or how that content is offered.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

Early lessons helped form leadership skills
The son of a textile worker and a kindergarten teacher’s aide, Bill Farmer grew up in a small house on a dirt road in rural Rocky Mount, N.C., during the turbulent Civil Rights era. He and his younger brother, Ronnie, were the first two African-American students to attend their elementary school.

While studying radio, television and film at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, he landed the plum position of managing the school’s high-profile basketball team. “I learned the importance of chemistry between people working for a common goal,” he said. “All of these lessons make me a more understanding and effective leader.”

While working as a loom cleaner at a textile mill in his hometown during his freshman year of college, the “dirty job,” as he called it, convinced him to pursue loftier goals.

“I learned that jobs may not always be what we expect, but you should still do the very best work that you can do, and by all means get a quality education,” he said. “Hard work makes us stronger.”

Farmer’s career with Time Warner Cable began in 1980, and he moved up the ranks by crisscrossing the country. He relocated to Colorado, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri and Pennsylvania before settling down in Jackson, where he serves as president of the Jackson/Monroe division of Time Warner Cable. Before he left West Virginia, he received the Distinguished West Virginia Award, the highest honor given to a civilian in the state. Several years ago, he was inducted into the National Association of Minorities in Cable (NAMIC) Hall of Fame.

“I was fortunate to find a company that gave me experience in marketing, public affairs, operations, customer service and general management,” he said. “This varied background prepared me to run a division. The accomplishment I am most proud of is having created the most ethnically and gender-diverse senior management group of any company I am aware of.”

Another first: Farmer was vice president of operations in the inaugural major company system to use converter technology, fiber optic technology, and to launch Road Runner.

“This was done in three different locations over time, and it was exciting to be in the middle of cutting edge technology and services,” he said. “It also prepared me to lead the Jackson/Monroe division when we launched residential and commercial Road Runner here.”

Citing his mother as “a great influence in my life,” who emphasized giving back to the community, Farmer has served on numerous boards of non-profit organizations, mostly benefiting children. He has also volunteered his time as a guest reader at Jackson State University’s Learning Center.

As 2005 chairman and a board member of the Metro- Jackson Chamber of Commerce, Farmer said the volunteer role “allowed me to take part in cultivating and maintaining the chamber’s existing programs (and) also affords me the opportunity to offer suggestions and have direct input into innovative programs that will create positive results in our community.”

Today, Farmer and his wife, Kehaulani, share their passion for sporting events, artistic performances and gospel and jazz music with their daughter Alexis, seven. He begins and ends every day reading voraciously. In the early hours of the morning, he works out while reading newspapers from major metropolitan areas across the country. At nighttime, he and his daughter together read books of all sorts.

— LJ

About Lynne W. Jeter

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