President and chief executive officer, Cox Communications
Education: University of Pennsylvania, BA; Harvard University, MBA.
Career: WBZ-TV, 1969–1972, assistant producer, then managing news editor; Continental Cablevision of Ohio and Montachusett Cable Television, 1972–1979, various management positions; Viacom Communications, 1979–1983, vice president and general manager for Viacom Cable of Long Island, then senior vice president of operations; Cox Communications, 1983–1984, vice president of New York City operations; 1984–1985, senior vice president of Atlanta and New Orleans operations; 1985–, president; 1995–, president and chief executive officer.
Awards: Named one of Forbes magazine's Most Powerful People, 2000 and 2001.
Address: Cox Communications, 1400 Lake Hearn Drive NE, Atlanta, Georgia 30319; http://www.cox.com.
■ In 1985 James (Jim) Robbins became president of Cox Communications, the third-largest cable-television provider in the United States. Ten years later the position of CEO was added to his duties. A veteran of the television industry, Robbins ran operations for several cable systems before joining Cox. While at its helm, he always stressed a commitment to customer service and an unwavering dedication to the cable industry.
Robbins graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and then served two tours of duty in Vietnam. On his first tour he served with the U.S. Navy as a line officer on a destroyer. On his second tour, and by now interested in broadcasting, Robbins was assigned to the post of deputy public-affairs officer for the mobile riverine force, stationed on the Mekong River. "It taught me a lot about the news business," he told Broadcasting (February 15, 1988).
When he returned from Vietnam, Robbins had the choice of working as a reporter for a Tulsa, Oklahoma, television network affiliate, or pursuing an MBA at Harvard. He chose the latter, but remained interested in television. While still in school he took a job as an assistant producer for WBZ-TV in Boston. He stayed on at WBZ after receiving his degree, eventually becoming the managing news editor.
Robbins enjoyed the production end of the television business, but he wanted to apply the business and management training he had gained at Harvard. He took a job running a small cable system for the Adams-Russell Company, where he increased the number of subscribers, raised rates, and improved programming. He also met H. I. Grousbeck, then chairman of Continental Cablevision, who hired him to build franchises near Dayton, Ohio. When he had finished that task, Robbins moved on to Viacom, where he had the job of fixing the company's troubled Suffolk County system on Long Island. He described the operation when he arrived as "a disaster." Robbins got the system under control and improved customer service. "My career in the cable business has taken me into very tough situations, turnaround situations," Robbins told Broadcasting (February 15, 1988).
In 1983 Robbins was offered the position of running Cox's cable partnership in Staten Island, New York. He did that for a year, and then he moved to the company's Atlanta headquarters to oversee Cox's Louisiana and California operations. In 1985 he was named president of Cox Communications, which was then the country's fifth-largest multiple-service operator (MSO), a cable company that operated more than one cable system.
Robbins was a stickler for customer service. He boasted that under his leadership Cox's customer-service representatives answered calls within 25 seconds and its service technicians handled repairs within three days. He also developed the strategy of wooing customers with reasonable rates and then gradually increasing the rates over time. In 1991 Robbins took over as chairman of the National Cable Television Association.
In that role he fought against the entry of telephone companies into the cable-television business, a move he said would reduce competition and hurt consumers. He also pushed for the cable industry to improve customer service, keep rates under control, improve its negative image in the media, and become more involved in the community—especially in education. Robbins was a big proponent of the Cable in the Classroom program, which brought educational television shows into schools around the country.
Meanwhile, Robbins kept busy modernizing his company. In the late 1990s Cox entered the digital age, offering digital cable and high-speed Internet access. And even though Robbins had fought the entry of telephone companies into the cable industry a decade earlier, under his leadership Cox began offering its customers telephone service. In 1999 Congress was considering regulating access to Internet service, which would have forced Cox to open its high-access lines to competing Internet service providers. Robbins urged the government to stay out of Internet regulation, claiming that it would reduce competition and slow new investment in technology.
Also in 1999 Robbins surprised analysts by acquiring TCA Cable TV, a Texas cable operator. Whereas most of Coxowned systems were in major metropolitan areas, TCA served less-profitable rural areas. Robbins claimed the purchase added a strategic one million new customers, but after making the move he admitted that Cox would probably stay away from similar acquisitions in the future. In 2001, with the telephone business proving less popular than he had anticipated, Robbins scaled back the company's expansion of phone service. At the time, it had only 245,000 phone customers out of its 6.2 million home subscribers.
In 2003 lawmakers and the cable industry began battling over rising cable costs. Robbins and other cable-system owners blamed the increasing costs on programmers. In 2003 Robbins testified before Congress, calling for regulations on programming prices, especially on sports-network licensing fees. He was especially concerned about ESPN, which had raised its rates several times. Cox and other cable systems had to pass those additional costs on to their customers, he claimed. He suggested that cable operators offer sports programming to their customers on a separate tier for an additional charge. Disney's Michael Eisner, whose company owned 80 percent of ESPN, responded by calling Robbins "a whiner." Robbins fired back, accusing Eisner of using "Goofy math" ( Broadcasting & Cable , June 9, 2003).
The following year the Senate aimed its concern over rising prices squarely at the cable industry. Senators threatened new cable regulations if operators did not rein in soaring prices and offer customers greater channel choice. But Robbins and other cable operators again asserted that rising costs were merely a reflection of increasing prices for programming, and he said that a move to à la carte pricing would only increase prices and result in fewer programming choices for consumers.
Robbins served on C-SPAN's executive committee and the board of trustees of STI Classic Funds, a mutual-fund affiliate of Sun Trust Bank. He also served as chairman of the board of the National Cable Television Association from 1991 to 1992 and 1999 to 2000. A firm believer in community service, Robbins was actively involved in the local and national chapters of the National Diabetes Foundation (one of his children has diabetes). He served as chairman of the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, International.
See also entry on Viacom Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
Higgins, John M., "Cox, ESPN Brawl Gets Nasty: Eisner Calls Robbins a 'Whiner'; Robbins Accuses Disney of 'Goofy math,'" Broadcasting & Cable , June 9, 2003, p. 8.
"James Robbins: Putting the Community in CATV," Broadcasting , February 15, 1998, p. 159.