Madison Magazine, December, 1996
The Cable Guy
When cities and states across the nation feel swamped by cable companies, they turn to Madison telecom expert UW-Madison Professor Barry Orton for advice
By John Kovalic
Barry Orton, Madison's Cable Guy, is back in town for a few days.
He's supposed to be having a holiday. Instead, the UW-Madison telecommunications professor has been crisscrossing the country on everything from full-size jets to pond hoppers, sharing his expertise with local governments across the continent.
"I basically sell my vacation time," he says, between mouthfuls of turkey on the Union Terrace.
Orton's vacation time is a commodity for which many people are willing to pay. Although Madisonians are familiar with his caustic quotes in the likes of Isthmus, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal anytime TCI Cablevision of Wisconsin raises its rates, the outspoken Orton is in big demand nationally, as well.
When he's not throwing lines to The New York Times or organizing local UW-Outreach seminars, the UWs telecom guru earns his frequent-flier miles advising communities on cable regulations, and how to battle the allegedly near-monopolistic companies they face.
Or he's working with the National Organization of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, a 700-strong group he helped found in 1981. Or he's maintaining the Internet mailing lists he created. Or he's aiding the state Film Office, another entity he helped start. "I've been doing this since I came here," he says, leaning back from the table.
A tiny bird hops across his table. A dozen others keep a respectful distance as it edges warily toward the stuffing Orton's finished with. Against all probability, the bird makes a lunge for the leftover stuffing, inches away from the imposing professor, and flies quickly off with its prize.
I love it, he laughs. "Chutzpah! Chutzpah bird!"
A gregarious extrovert, Orton knows all about chutzpah.
While he may not make headlines, he does make quotes - the kind of take-no-prisoner assaults on the cable industry that newspaper reporters love to hear. In an age of sensitivity and soft-sells, Orton is an old-fashioned fire-breather:
"The cable campaign is beyond chutzpah, it's extortion...small local governments don't have the wherewithal to figure out when they're being duped.
That's Barry Orton in the Wall Street Journal, September 27, 1993.
"Extortion" and "duped" - to say nothing of "chutzpah" - tend to be words people shy away from, especially in direct quotes in the Wall Street Journal.
You don't find many people like Orton," noted The Capital Times' one-time media columnist Patrice Wendling, who used Orton as a regular contact, "He says what's on his mind, and he doesn't hide it."
"He knows what's going on in the industry before anyone else, as well," she added. "It's very fortunate for us to have someone like that in town."
"I suppose I just know how the media works, and I'm not afraid to spin-doctor a quote, Orton notes, matter-of-factly "Getting the word 'chutzpah' in the Wall Street Journal was my highest achievement, apart from making the front page of The New York TImes."
Orton sees such PR as fuel for his cause--to alert cable consumers and local municipalities to the encroaching power of the cable and telephone companies. In his eyes, it's part warning, part education. "There's gotta be some element of public concern and consumer protection in the field," he explains.
"My job has always been simple," he adds. "I have to walk into a room where there's a fight over cable rates. I just wait for the cable company to shoot itself in the foot, and I look wonderful. It's real easy to do."
You'd think there'd be some deep-seated childhood cause behind Orton's antagonism toward the cable industry, some root trauma he suffered in front of a television set as a small child. But in fact, Orton's entry into telecommunications was a simple twist of fate.
Starting Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. as an engineer, and ending as a business major ("They were allowed the most electives"), and with a subsequent degree in urban planning from Rutgers, Orton says it was a "quirk of bureaucracy" that led him to become one of Madison's foremost men of electronic letters.
"In the summer of 1970, I applied for an internship with the state of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs in city planning," he explains. "At the bottom of the form there was a blank space where you could tell them about yourself. I guess they ran out of questions, but still had space left on the page."
As a Lehigh senior, Orton had started playing around with filmmaking, using his parents' old 16 mm camera to make documentaries on the student strikes that were all the rage at the time. "It was an independent study - one of those scams," he says. But he decided to mention it to the state of New Jersey
"And through one of these weird coincidences, the head of an anti-poverty program in Ringwood, New Jersey had a brother who was doing a conscientious objector stint as Marshall McLuhan's teaching assistant at Fordham," he shrugs.
"So this guy was turned on to what was then brand-new: portable video. And the state of New Jersey, in its wisdom, found out that I knew something about film. And some bureaucrat, not knowing what they were doing with my life, said 'Film... video... must be similar,' and sent me."
Orton soon found himself taking crash courses on video and making documentaries with about 20 kids in what he describes as a federal boondoggle program.
Going after a master's degree in urban planning, Orton attended Rutgers in the fall of 1970. With the New Jersey stint on his resume, his advisor pointed him in the direction of the department's urban communications section, and Orton was soon budgeted $200,000 (or about $1 million these days) to build a studio.
Orton wound up with his PhD in urban planning, but had a specialty in telecom planning tacked on to it by the time he arrived in Madison in 1980, as an assistant professor with the UW Extension.
"I'd never been to Madison in my life. I was getting my PhD, and looking for job, and I had two alternatives: one was a faculty position at Florida International University in Miami, and the other was a job with the A.C. Nielsen company which was trying to find a way to rate cable shows.
"Out of the blue, I applied for a job at the UW Extension, which I didn't think was any different from the UW-Madison at the time."
The job entailed cable and video work, and Orton approached it because "I thought I could get a free trip to Madison out of it. At the time, I couldn't tell you in what order Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were. I thought they were somewhere past Chicago, but I didn't know where or how."
Impressed by the "pretty severe levels of academic freedom" available at the UW, however, he jumped as soon as the job was offered, "and never left."
1980 was a peak period for cable franchising, and Orton soon found work not only with the Extension, but with-Madison, Milwaukee and their suburbs, helping local governments navigate the Byzantine laws governing cable regulations and franchising.
"It was kind of a heady time. The cities didn't know how to deal with these companies. And my job was to provide them with that expertise."
On the national level, Orton was also involved in organizing and "professionalizing" bureaucrats who had to deal with cable and telecommunications on the city and state level when, in 1981, he helped found the National Organization of Telecom Officers and Advisors.
Orton worked alongside the Wisconsin attorney general's office in its suits against TCI ("It was fun to duel TCI to a standstill over that one"), and helped State Rep. Marlin Schneider draft one of the first state-level consumer protection and privacy bills for cable. Wisconsin was only the second state to enact such a bill, coming a full year before its federal equivalent was handed down from Washington.
"Barry gave us an experienced perspective on cable television," said Assistant Attorney General Bruce Craig, who prosecuted the 1991 TCI suit. "He understood the industry and the regulatory framework and the players. When we got into this case, Barry provided the understanding of what cable is. I didn't know any of that. He was our backbone.
"People assume he's making a lot in consulting fees, but most of the time, the money goes directly to his program." added Craig. "Most of the time, people hire the UW and the UW sends him." Maury Lee, general manager of TCI Cablevision of Wisconsin, would be forgiven for disliking Orton, with whom he's clashed in the press on several occasions. But he doesn't.
"There are some managers nationally in TCI who dislike working with him, because he knows his stuff," says Lee. "But that's why I like working with him. He knows his business. We know what can and can't be discussed. It's much more difficult for me to work with a lawyer/consultant who doesn't understand the regulations and the rules."
Most recently, Orton's been returning to many of the communities he started advising, as the original cable franchises he helped frame come up for renewal.
"What's been interesting has been trying to get the municipalities to work in concert," he said. The 10-municipality Four Lakes Area Cable Franchising Authorities, for example, recently hired Orton to form a joint franchise. The Milwaukee Regional Cable Commission has likewise arrived on his very busy doorstep.
"It's basically a way for cities to work together, and to leverage their admittedly weak negotiating position with the cable companies somewhat."
But the Big Question remains: Why? Why do Orton's eyes light up when he's talking about cable, telephone or Internet company greed? And why does he rush to battle them with such glee, when - like many consultants - he could be making more money working for the companies rather than against them?
"It's a job," he says. "It's made easier by the fact that most cable companies and phone companies treat the public terribly. These are quasi-monopolies that have almost unchecked control over the kind of information we receive."
Orton adds that he respects the people he goes up against; and believes - belligerent quotes to the contrary - that he's dealt fairly with them, and that they've dealt fairly with him.
Still, "When a cable company knows I'm going to be working with their city, I want them to worry," he says. "I want them to realize that the city is no longer barefoot and ignorant.
"I've never really sat down to think about why I do what I do. I guess I fell into an area of very narrow expertise that most people in the public sector don't have. I've enjoyed using that to balance the scale between the public's interest and the cable companies' interests."
"I just think he likes what he's doing," noted Craig. "How can you knock that?" "I can't say I'm on a mission from God," says Orton. "I'm just doing something I have the skills to do. People call me for help, and it's hard to walk away.
"Especially if you're getting paid for it," he laughs.
John Kovalic is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.