Rob Kennedy, ’80
Public Service / Public Sector Award - 2017
President and Co-Chief Executive Officer
The Start of a Clearer Picture
Before HBO, MTV, and the new generation of on-demand platforms such as Netflix, there were small cable companies such as Centel Corporation. It was early in the history of cable television, and the nascent industry was doing its best to improve television reception for customers living outside the major metropolitan areas.
Rob Kennedy, ’80, had an important role to play in C-SPAN’s earliest days, when John P. “Jack” Frazee Jr., then CEO of Centel Cable, tasked Kennedy with writing the first business plan for the startup cable network. At the time, Frazee was serving as board chairman for C-SPAN, which is a public service created by the nation’s cable television operating companies.
Though the cable television industry started in the late 1940s, it wasn’t until satellite television and the start of HBO that cable had a true value proposition for suburban subscribers through better access to entertainment. Prior to that, companies that wanted to sell more televisions in rural America largely drove the market.
“With HBO, you could watch movies at home uncut and you’d have to pay extra, but that was very attractive,” Kennedy says. “So, you’d get good reception, you’d get movies, and before long, cable companies started to add other satellite-delivered programming.”
That was the cable landscape in the late 1970s, and the creation of C-SPAN was just around the corner.
The Call of the Capitol
C-SPAN launched in 1979. By the early 1980s, Brian Lamb, founder and executive chair of C-SPAN, put a priority on developing a better business plan. On loan from Centel, Kennedy helped Lamb and his team create their business plan. Five years later, Lamb called Kennedy back to Washington, DC, this time with a job offer.
“Rob came in and did a great job. We all liked him here, and I remember saying, ‘We’ve got to see if we can talk him into coming to C-SPAN, because he’s a money manager and I don’t know the first thing about money,’” Lamb says. “I offered him a job, and he said ‘yes.’ He came out of a for-profit business to a nonprofit and has been here ever since.”
Though not in his original vision for his future, C-SPAN offered Kennedy a unique opportunity to marry his analytical and financial talents with his passion for history, as well as the technical acumen he gained as an electrical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From the start, Kennedy understood that the founding mission of the organization was something that struck a chord with him. Since 2012, he has served as C-SPAN’s president and co-CEO, and he has been C-SPAN’s top financial officer since 1987.
According to Kennedy, one of the many ways C-SPAN provides value to its viewers is that it offers them an unscripted, unbiased take on the government’s affairs. “You learn a lot about the give-and-take that occurs in Washington, which sometimes is disguised under the partisan news reports,” Kennedy says. “It’s not to say there’s not a lot of partisanship,
but you can see the back-and-forth in a nomination hearing, or the back-and-forth between the press and members of an administration.”
He continued: “C-SPAN provides a fuller picture, and that’s important to have out there even in a time when, with our phones and feeds,
our attention spans are getting shorter. It’s important for that primary source material to be there and easily accessible so you can go back and look at what was really said.”
A Commitment to Sharing Insight
Kennedy continues to be active in the cable industry beyond his role at
C-SPAN. He’s a board member and finance committee chair for the Emma Bowen Foundation, which creates mentoring opportunities for minority college students in cable, broadcast, and technology companies. He also serves on the board of the CTAM Education Foundation, a sponsor of the Cable Executive Management Program at Harvard University.