Charter CEO Tom Rutlege says ‘pain to come’ as TV gives way to streaming


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Charter Communications Chief Executive Officer Tom Rutledge will be stepping down as the company’s CEO on Dec. 1. He will remain as executive chairman until November 2023, when his contract expires.

Rutledge referred to his decision to leave as “retirement,” but the almost 70-year-old executive, who has been in the industry for 50 years, told CNBC in an exclusive interview he isn’t ready to leave the business completely.

When Rutledge took over Charter in 2012, the company had just emerged from bankruptcy. At the time, it had a market valuation of less than $6 billion. By September 2021, fueled by the company’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable five years earlier, the company’s market capitalization hit about $130 billion.

This year hasn’t been as kind to Rutledge or Charter investors, as shares have fallen 47%. Charter’s current market valuation is about $55 billion.

In a wide-ranging interview, Rutledge discussed cable’s future, the industry’s recent valuation dip, the distressed futures of broadcast and cable TV, competition from fixed wireless and fiber, and why he felt bold enough to acquire Time Warner Cable in 2016.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

CNBC’s Alex Sherman: Why retire now?

Tom Rutledge: Well, that’s a good question. You know, a couple of years ago, I started this planning process. Fifty years ago, I’d actually had a family emergency. I was traveling the world and came home [instead of going to college] and started as a technician in cable, Aug. 15, 1972. I came home and worked my way through college as a tech. I wasn’t planning on getting into the cable business. But obviously I’ve spent my entire career in cable and I really like it, and I really think there’s a lot more to come in terms of opportunity. And so a couple of years ago, I thought that’d be an interesting date to sort of start thinking about retiring. I’m also going to be 70 at the end of this executive chairmanship period. So it seemed to me like it was time to pass the baton, and yet I would like to stay involved in the business and stay involved in the industry. But I think it’s appropriate at this point to turn it over.

You remember the exact date you started? Is there some significance to why you remembered that day?

You know, it’s an odd date. The only reason I remember it is because it’s the exact same day I started with Time Inc. in 1977, so because it’s the exact same day, I still know it after 50 years. It’s on some of my documents and I’m able to recollect it. And I remember why I went home, too, because we were having this family emergency. My father was terminally ill at the time, and so I remember the date.

Just to give people a little bit of context, can you describe what the cable industry looked like in this country when you first started?

Time Inc. was the second-biggest cable company. ATC was the company I went to work for. Actually, when I first started in 1972, we were building a small cable system in the suburbs of Pennsylvania — of Pittsburgh, Penn. The company I was involved with, Eastern Telecom, was a very small family controlled company that wanted to bid on the Pittsburgh franchise. Urban franchising was just coming along. There was no satellite TV. The only products we had at that time were off-air broadcast. The first cable system I worked on was actually a ground-up new build. We had 24 channels of capability, which was way more than we had channels to fill. That was built in anticipation of the kind of future that we thought we could get out of this industry. So, very small companies. The biggest cable company in the industry at that time had about a million customers. I think the whole industry had about 12 million, out of the whole United States, and it was primarily just in rural areas where there was no TV reception.

I want to ask what I think is the fundamental question moving forward for cable from an investor standpoint. We’re seeing the first major signs of broadband growth plateauing. Cable TV is clearly a dying industry, seemingly accelerating. Landline phone has already died to some degree. There is some growth in the wireless aspect of things. But for 10 years, I’ve been told by cable executives how the cable business fundamentally is a better business than the wireless industry, which has low margins and shrinking ARPUs. So if I’m an investor, why am I investing in cable today?

Well, sort of, for all the same reasons you ever invested in it. If you go back, we were a connectivity company right from the beginning. We were connecting broadcast signals to customers who couldn’t get them. It was an integrated product from the way it was sold, but from a technological point of view, we’ve been a connectivity company from the beginning. Through the years, we’ve managed to have a regulatory opportunity to get into telephony. We ended up owning the wireline telephony business essentially and became the major provider of that service. In the process we invented high speed broadband and took that connectivity to where we are today. The opportunity that we have going forward is to integrate wireless services — mobility, cellular service — into overall wireline connectivity and to sell that in a way that reduces customers bills and causes us to have a better product and a better price than our competitors, and a package for consumers that they can’t really replicate anywhere else.

When you look at where we are today in terms of penetration, you talk about businesses declining: Yes, video is coming apart to a certain extent because it’s overpriced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a future video business. Wireline telephony has been substituted by mobile telephony. Broadband still has a lot of growth potential in it. But when you look at us as a company and look at our mobile piece and our broadband piece, and you look at all the revenue or costs that customers have for their connectivity services, the broadband piece of their connectivity bill is actually quite small relative to the mobile piece, and broadband capacity in terms of data throughput is quite large.

When you think about what the average broadband bill is, in our company with promotions and everything else, our average revenue per customer is about $64. The average mobile customer inside our footprint is spending about $135 a month on mobile service — multiple lines through for all members of the household. When you add up the individual line prices of $60 a line times the average number of people per household, you get that $135 number, approximately. So there’s a lot more money being spent on mobile than there is on broadband. And yet broadband is a significantly richer product from a data throughput perspective. And we can actually make the mobile product, which is used 85% of the time in the home or in the office and on the Wi-Fi system, we can make that an even faster service in the home and in the office, and we can make it a less expensive service.

I remember when we launched the triple play for wireline, data and video, the average phone bill in the New York metropolitan area was about $78 [per month]. We brought that down to $30 and ended up having the majority of the customers. I think we have the same opportunity in mobile. Mobile, yes, is a fully penetrated business in the country, not growing that fast, but if you look at where we are in mobile, we’re not well penetrated. And so we’ve got tremendous upside for years to come.

OK, two questions there. First, are you advocating, then, that the bull cable thesis is tied up in this wireless growth story — even though Charter doesn’t own a national network and, to your point, even if 85% of calls are in the home, 15% aren’t? So, wireless isn’t fundamentally a home product. And the second question is, very much related to that, for years now, the bull investor thesis has been broadband growth. But between fixed wireless and this burgeoning fiber play that we are seeing more investment in — you’re going to have more competition there than you’ve ever had before. So does that mean that broadband growth is no longer the big growth story it once was?

No, I think there’s plenty of broadband growth to get for us and there’s continued broadband adoption to get for the whole industry. There are still consumers that don’t use broadband. There are still people who substitute really high speed broadband with mobile-only broadband. They’re mostly income-related issues, but there’s still growth in share to get for us and there’s still significant growth in upside, and there’s significant growth in new construction. Don’t forget, we’re building out rural America and we’re building out continued growth in the housing stock in the United States on a regular basis. Over the last five years, we’ve built about a million homes a year. On top of that, going forward, I think we can build additional rural expansion. We already won commitments to build 1.1 million or more rural households with broadband service. We expect to get very high penetrations in those areas. So there’s lots of broadband growth going forward as well. But the combined opportunity to create a unified product between broadband and mobility has even more upside in aggregate than just broadband growth alone.

Just to put a pin on that last point, though, do you expect broadband growth to look anything like what it’s looked to the past, say, five, seven or nine years?

I think when you aggregate it all up, it’s got the potential to be like that. Yes. That’s still reasonable.

In other words, what we’ve seen this past year is a blip between pandemic pull-through effects and macroeconomic difficulty?

That’s my view. I mean, obviously, as you reach full penetration, you’re going to have some slowing down in growth. At some point, it gets to the household growth rate. But I don’t see that for five years or more. I think there’s continuous opportunity. I do think if you look at the trend lines, 2020 was a massive blip in terms of growth and even 2021 had growth associated with the pandemic that pulled forward a lot of growth.

Then you had a lot of consumer behavior changes as a result of the pandemic in terms of mobility, which still haven’t fully unwound. We’re seeing some signs that it’s unwinding. I think it’s more of the pull-forward issue and the lack of activity than it is our opportunity to grow. And so, yes, there’s new competition that you mentioned in terms of fixed wireless, and there are applications where that makes some sense as a market product. I think our products are much different. For anybody who wants to use video or any significant use of data, our products are much better. That doesn’t mean if you own an ice cream truck that you might want to have a fixed broadband service that looks at a cellphone tower. Or if you live in a rural area where there’s no service, and that cell tower can reach you, it’s better than the current satellite services that are provided in those areas.

So, not to say that there isn’t competition, and yes, there’s been fiber expansion, although it hasn’t really changed much over the last 10 years. The pace of that hasn’t changed much over the last 10 years, even notwithstanding all the announcements that have been made recently. It takes time to build out infrastructure. It’s very expensive. All of those who’ve done it in the past have failed. You know, if you look at Verizon‘s FiOS, they ended up selling most of it. Almost all overbuilders of physical infrastructure don’t do well in the long term. So I think the macroeconomic forces that have always affected overbuilders will continue to affect them and affect the pace of construction.

I think we’re in pretty good shape from a competitive point of view. But that’s not to say there won’t be continued competition from satellite companies like Elon Musk’s [Starlink] and Amazon‘s company and the fixed wireless providers. We’ve had satellite competition in the past, though that appears to have gone away to some extent. At one time broadcasting was considered our competitor. We’ve had different infrastructure competitors, communications, competitors, and we will in the future. But the beautiful thing about what we’ve built is that we have this massive infrastructure. It’s ubiquitously deployed and it’s very inexpensive on a relative basis to upgrade it to get more capacity out of it.

Does it make sense in this country to follow the path of what we have seen in Europe and other countries where there’s ultimately convergence between wireless existing wireless companies and cable companies in the form of mergers? Obviously regulators would have to OK it. But even in concept, does that make sense in this country?

Sure. At some level, right now, we have a set of wireless customers. As I said before, most of the bits are actually flowing through our network. Right now we lease space on a mobile carrier for the service that’s away from the home and away from the office, which increasingly is becoming less voice intensive. Just pure broadband in many ways. You can see where different companies might want to put assets together to make that work better and more efficiently in the future. But we don’t need to do that right now from our perspective.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t assets out there that we could use in combination with the other assets we have to bring an even better service to customers in the future. But right now, we’re in very good shape. We have a good MVNO [mobile virtual network operator]. We have good margins in our mobile business. We’re able to connect that into our wireline business and actually improve the offload onto our wireline business. And we have new frequencies in the terms of CBRS [citizens broadband radio service] spectrum which allows us to create an environment where we actually can offload some of the leased service onto our own network. So, I can see how assets can be mixed and matched in the future. But there’s no immediate need for us to do anything.

Still, is that where we’re going to be eventually going? At some point in the next five, 10 years, will we have merged wireless cable companies in this country?

Uh, you know, yes, I do think that. Some of the assets that are in each of those defined companies now will be in other companies.

What about cable consolidation? I’ve heard speculation that you guys are interested in the Suddenlink asset that’s being marketed by Altice right now. Do you expect to get significantly larger than where you are from a footprint standpoint in the coming years?

Well, I guess I would like to, because I think that cable assets are good assets for all the reasons I just said. And fundamentally, I think if you manage them in a good way and a coherent way and take advantage of all the natural opportunity that they present, that you can create a lot of value. And I think there’s some value in scale which can translate into consumer value as well. And so there’s no cable asset out in the country, anywhere, that I wouldn’t like to own if the situation was right to own it.

Obviously there’s a question of what you have to pay to get it. There’s also a question of most of the cable assets in this country that are not us are controlled by family businesses. And so the cadence of a family business is different than that of a public company and often unrelated to exact moments of time with the marketplace and value. So there is no real opportunity right now to do much. And so to the extent there are any assets available, they are quite small. They don’t move the needle much from Charter’s perspective.

Though, Suddenlink, that one’s not that small.

Well, you know, relative to Charter, it’s not large.

Can you take me back in time a little bit? Certainly at Charter, if not for your whole career, one of the defining moments for you was the Time Warner Cable acquisition, which was paired with Bright House. It was an enormous acquisition. Charter was a small company. What gave you the idea that Charter could pull this off and then the confidence to actually move forward with it? Because if you look at history, in any industry, the idea that a company that was the size of Charter trying to buy a company the size of Time Warner Cable, I mean, I’m not sure I can think of anything that comes to mind that rivals that. Correct me if I’m wrong.

No, I’m not aware of it. That was audacious in some ways. It seemed very natural to me, though, which I guess is good. I’ve been in the business a long time. I really have a lot of confidence in the business and its capabilities and our capabilities to create value over a long period of time. I had a lot of experience at Time Inc. I grew up at Time Warner. I spent 23 years there. I started as a manager trainee and ended up as president of the company. And then AOL bought it, and I was completely disillusioned by their purchase and their vision about what cable could be.

Which just, just to interrupt, which was what? What was their vision?

Well, I’m not sure what it was. I’m not sure they had one. From AOL’s perspective, they did a great deal. And obviously, Time Warner took [stock in the deal], which ended up not being worth very much for their own set of assets. But I remember talking Steve Case and [Barry Schuler], who was the official CEO at the time, down to look at video on demand in Austin, Texas. And one of them turned to the other and said, you know, what do we need a network for? We have dial up!

There were changes being made in the company then and there were managerial issues, and I wasn’t really connected to them, but I didn’t think that their vision of where cable was going and mine was going to work. And I left. I was offered a job, to stay as president. But I decided not to.

I ended up at Cablevision. And we had real success at Cablevision with the triple play. We mixed telephony, broadband and video together into a package, and it really worked. At Cablevision, I tried to do the Time Warner Cable deal, but there were control issues there, and it was a family business [then owned by the Dolan family]. But I believed that if we had more assets to manage, we could do more and make more and create more value. It was really that simple of a notion. It’s really a managerial approach that we were selling.

So I went to Charter because the rollup that I wanted Cablevision to do wasn’t going to happen for their own family needs and planning. The company backed off. And so I thought, I’ll go to Charter. Charter is a diamond in the rough. It had gone through bankruptcy. It was actually quite a mess, which made it quite an opportunity. We immediately had success at Charter and started growing the company rapidly. And we had a valuable piece of equity in terms of our stock price and our reputation as a company and our reputation as a management system. The vision to get Time Warner was in that. So first we did a deal for Bresnan, a company I actually bought twice. I bought it first at Cablevision and then they rebranded it to Optimum West, and then [in 2013] we bought it [from Cablevision]. And then [John Malone’s] Liberty [Media] came in.

Did you find John Malone, or did John Malone find you?

Well, I guess he found me. I mean, obviously I’ve known who he is my whole life. And at one point he tried to hire me to run DirecTV, but I didn’t really know John well. I mean, I knew him reputationally. I admired him, but I didn’t know him. But at Charter, he wanted to know why I did the Optimum West deal and what I was thinking about. And we had a discussion about that, and then they bought out the private equity people that took Charter out of bankruptcy. Today, they have about 26% of the company through Liberty Broadband, which is a public company.

I expressed my vision then, because they were part of the board, about what we could do with Time Warner. The board thought we could do it and it made sense. It was audacious. But, you know, look at the value we could create if we did it. It was a difficult process, obviously. And we had Comcast in there.

You hit my next question there. To remind people, originally, you were working with Comcast to split up the assets and then Comcast, for lack of a better word, kind of stabbed you guys in the back and ended up doing the deal, without informing you, on their own. What went through your mind when you found out that that happened?

Well, I was disappointed. I guess that would be the the mildest way to put it. But, then we were able to get the whole thing. So it all worked out.

I mentioned Altice USA earlier. Altice has taken a strategy where its management feels like it needs to upgrade its current network to fiber, at least, quite a large percentage of it. So they’re going through that process now. It’s expensive, but they have come to the conclusion they need to upgrade to fiber. Charter and Comcast don’t think so. Can you explain briefly why that is and if you think Altice is making a mistake?

We think we’re on the right course, which is not to fully upgrade fiber to the side of the house. We have very deep, rich fiber assets throughout our network. But there are a bunch of other technologies that can allow a translation of the fiber signal into an RF coaxial signal and then ultimately into a WiFi or mobile signal or cellular signal from the network. The real question is, what does capacity to serve a customer cost? And we think that there are less expensive ways than doing an all fiber overbuild on your own network for a variety of reasons.

One, most of the cost of a fiber network is not the actual initial construction. It’s all the connections, which are much more expensive individually in a fiber build than they are in an upgrade situation like we have. When you think about underground construction, 35% of the country is underground serviced, and it’s much more expensive to build a whole new network. It’s very painstakingly slow. So when you look at the cost of actually getting 10 gigabit service out of a network and into a device that can actually handle it, it’s much less expensive to upgrade the kind of networks we have in this country, with the kind of topography we have with our networks — aerial and underground, fairly wide open spaces, low density construction — it makes a lot more sense to use developments in the DOCSIS platform and in the fiber platform together than by going all fiber.

Two TV questions for you. First one: How much longer does legacy pay TV have, and is it going to go away completely at some point?

I’ve always thought it would just slowly attrite. It just keeps getting more and more expensive. Programing costs are actually declining because customers are declining, which means that the whole ecosystem is shrinking from a value proposition. And there’s a lot of assets that are held up by that system. Sports programing, athletes’ pay, etc. The development of content. And most content is relatively inexpensive to develop, comparatively speaking, to sports. People still want the product. It’s a highly valuable service. It just costs a lot.

So, I think it will continue to slowly attrite. There will still be live TV, and there will still be on-demand premium services like we have, and there’ll be ad supported products that work. But getting wide distribution gets more and more difficult going forward. So whether we can reaggregate some of that in the direct-to-consumer products, which have will have low penetrations, relatively speaking, to the historic system, I’m not sure. But I think there’s an opportunity there. There’s also a whole need for search and discovery and how you find content and pulling content back together. So I can I can envision a reaggregation model going forward, but I think there’s a lot more pain to come before that happens.

Would Charter participate in the reaggregation model as a pay-TV distributor?

Well, we do have a joint venture that we just formed with Comcast, which is going to be branded as Xumo. And it’s really a platform business that allows us to put app-based television out and to deploy that widely. If we do that well, we’ll be able to create an advertising platform which will defray some of the costs of content for consumers. I think one of the most significant things we could do and need to do if we’re going to be successful is create a successful advertising model. The only way you get that is pretty wide deployment.

We’re committed to deploying that business. There’s potential significant upside to it. And that’s a wireless business, by the way. It’s not going to be connected by wire. But it’s a platform that allows us to develop and work with app-based suppliers, including direct-to-consumer suppliers, and to help those direct-to consumer-suppliers do better because we can leverage our own relationships with consumers to help sell services.

So if I understood your answer, I think what you’re saying is legacy pay-TV will continue to decline. There will eventually be some sort of reaggregation into a digital model, but it will be painful. So I’m assuming what you’re saying is at some point, legacy TV, pay TV as we know it, will stop existing and it will be part of this new thing. Again, just to try to pin you down, is that 10 years away?

Let me just tell you a story. In 1980, when I was the general manager of suburban Philadelphia’s cable system, a broadcaster from KGW, channel three in Philadelphia, came out and did an interview with me. We showed them all the technology and the anchor person or the reporter said to me, “One day, I’m going to be working for you.” And what he meant was that cable was going to replace broadcasting. But if you look around, broadcasting still exists — 40 years afterwards. So I’m not saying it’s going away by any means, but there will be rich bundled packages of linear video.

Now, I don’t know how broadcasting fares. You know, right now we spend, per customer, over $240 a year for retransmission rights for broadcast TV. And if you think about that, if you have an antenna, broadcast TV is free. So, over the air, all this content is being blasted into the air, unencrypted. That’s what broadcasting is. So I don’t know how that lasts with people paying for it at those kind of rates. I think it’ll last a number of years but it’s clearly in deep trouble.

And so that probably leads to a dramatic pivot or reforming of all of the companies that are in the broadcast TV station business?

 Something’s going to happen. Yeah. I don’t know what, exactly.

I want to ask you, because I don’t think you’ve talked about this at all: There was a recent $7 billion verdict against Charter stemming from the murder of an 83-year-old woman by a Charter cable repair man. That verdict was knocked down to $1.15 billion by a judge. Do you have any comments on that?

No, other than we don’t think we have any liability in the case. We’ve been saying that we will exercise all the legal rights we have going forward, and we expect to prevail.

Last question: You’ve spent so much of your life working in the cable industry, as we’ve discussed. Is there a new product or revenue stream that down the road will be associated with cable companies as a standard part of a consumer’s monthly cable bill? Every few years, cable rolls out home security or telehealth, but nothing outside of the wireless MVNO business has really stuck recently.

I do think that in the long term there’ll be much richer data products, immersive data products —entertainment and work and play and things like medicine — that our networks lend themselves to. We can get our networks in shape to do that very quickly [through upgrades]. I think there will be an immersive world not withstanding what’s going on with the metaverse and other attempts to create that world. But clearly, the capability of of communications is going to continue to expand. And you can envision a world of three dimensional products, holographic displays and all of the implications of that provides to creating businesses. And I think we’ll be part of that.

If you look at all the money being spent today in the United States on communications, mobile is where most of it is. And so that’s a real opportunity from a growth perspective for the next decade. But in the grand scheme of things, I think our skill set as a mass provider of services is better at the big products than it is at the niche products. It’s difficult to develop niche businesses like security, which are not broad. Devices like Ring doorbells may become ubiquitous, but the traditional high touch security business is a niche business. And we have not done that well in the niche businesses and aggregating a bunch of niche businesses that use communication services. That’s not to say we won’t find them and we won’t put them together. But I think the big opportunities for us are the big mass services and the ubiquitously deployed services, and that’s where the the infrastructure we’ve built really is valuable.

One more — you mentioned you wanted to hang around the industry. Seventy is not that old. Are you sure this is real retirement?

I’m not really sure what I’m going to do. You know, I really like all this stuff and want to build and compete. But I’ve been CEO 10 years here and I think it’s good to renew management and the way you think. I don’t want to start mailing it in, so I think it’s right for me to move. But I also think the industry has got tremendous opportunity and I understand a lot of how it all fits together. And so, yes, I’d like to find a way to stay connected and create value, but I’m not sure how that’s going to happen.

That sounds like a ‘no’ to me.

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company.

 


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