By Michael Roberts
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By Michael Roberts
The bitter feud over the $1 billion estate of cable-television magnate Bob Magness came to an end last week as all parties involved reached an out-of-court settlement. The multiple lawsuits enmeshing Magness's sons, Kim and Gary, his widow, Sharon, University of Denver chancellor Daniel Ritchie, and Tele-Communications Inc. and its chairman, John Malone, are all history.
Though it was hard for the average Joe to sympathize with people for whom $200 million just wasn't enough, it was fascinating to watch the legal hijinks and teary-eyed earnestness of people who vowed to do only what Bob would have wanted as they sued his best friends and loved ones. Toss in revelations of past drug busts and arrests for drunken driving and disorderly conduct, and you had the makings of a fabulous prime-time soap opera.
Indeed, L'Affaire Magness was the most sensational example of a filthy-rich and dysfunctional family blowing up since the fictitious TV soap Dynasty, which was set in Denver, hit the airwaves in 1981. While the Magness situation ended without the burst of gunfire from armed revolutionaries that felled several members of the Carrington family at the end of one Dynasty season, the eerie similarities between the two families were striking. Both contained a hardworking family patriarch who could be alternately kind and cruel; a second wife whom some would nominate for sainthood but who also had enemies within the family; a hard-drinking son who got into trouble with the law; and a ruthless but effective business partner who knew how to use intimidation and threats to get whatever he wanted.
So many members of Denver's establishment were dragged into the Magness mess that it merits another episode of the 1980s shlockfest. Herewith, the official casting call:
BLAKE CARRINGTON (BOB MAGNESS)
Like Carrington, Bob Magness was the patriarch of a family and a business, and in his mind, the two may have been one and the same.
While Carrington made his millions in the oil business, Magness got rich off a different kind of crude. A folksy Oklahoma rancher and cottonseed buyer who was smart enough to realize the potential of cable television, he quickly mastered the business skills required to build a cable empire. Always pleasant in person, he also earned a reputation as a ferocious businessman who could hold off angry creditors and intimidate potential rivals.
Magness began stringing cable in 1956 to serve 700 subscribers in Memphis, Texas. He climbed telephone polls and hitched up the cable wires, enabling people living on isolated ranches to watch the same programs enjoyed by people in the cities. His late wife, Betsy, kept the books for the operation at their kitchen table.
In an interview, Magness said he discovered that "a guy could make a lot of money if he could get five bucks a month from a lot of people." The rugged outposts of the Rocky Mountains--virtually inaccessible to broadcast signals--were especially fertile grounds for the new cable industry, and Magness moved his family, including young Kim and Gary, to Bozeman, Montana, in 1958. As cable spread rapidly in rural areas around the West, Denver became a logical place to base the young industry, and Magness founded TCI in Denver in 1968, eventually settling down in a giant ranch house overlooking a fishing pond in Cherry Hills Village.
Over the next few decades, Magness and a brilliant Yankee engineer he recruited in 1972 named John Malone ("I've hired the smartest son of a bitch I have ever met," Magness told friends) built up a huge cable empire by buying up other cable companies all over the country. The company lived on the edge of bankruptcy as Magness and Malone brokered deals with far-flung cable operations, betting everything on the idea that cable would take off and become a basic part of American culture.
Like Denver Carrington, the oil company that funded the antics of the scheming heirs on Dynasty, TCI became remarkably adept at dodging the bullet. Magness prided himself on being able to stare down bankers, showing a steely resolve that Blake Carrington would have admired. When the first Dynasty episode aired in 1981, the Carrington empire tottered on the verge of collapse after Middle Eastern terrorists seized the company's tanker fleet. While nothing quite as dramatic ever threatened TCI, the company's leaders were often likened to terrorists by competitors, and legions of couch potatoes felt like they were being held hostage to a cable company that continually boosted rates and delivered poor service.
As with his TV twin, Magness was seen in different ways by different people. Some say the shy magnate exemplified the essence of the American dream, building a billion-dollar empire from nothing and pioneering a technology that would one day bring dozens of television channels into American living rooms. Always somewhat embarrassed by his wealth, Magness loved nothing more than riding horses on the family ranch.
But others claim Magness and the company he founded demonstrate the dark side of American capitalism. TCI has often been described as the consummate corporate bully, and Magness and Malone never hesitated to threaten other companies or communities that stood in their way. Since cable franchises have a monopoly in their respective communities, TCI often thumbed its nose at its customers, ignoring their complaints of shoddy service. The company didn't pay much heed to actually serving its subscribers until the advent of household satellite dishes offered real competition to cable.