Center Stage

One of Denver's least-understood media projects gets ready for its close-up.

There's no denying that the building at 2000 East Buchtel is spectacular. Located next to the equally striking Ritchie Center on the University of Denver campus, it's massive (a whopping 74,000 square feet), with a curved glass facade that allows light to spill into a circular area accurately dubbed "the great hall." A giant, beautifully stylized map of the world covers the hall's floor, but the eyes of most visitors will be drawn to an immense video tower made up of 98 individual television screens -- blank now, but not for long.

Still, the main clue to the joint's identity is a quote attributed to Granite Associates CEO Alan Gerry that's chiseled into a wall to the left of the video tower: "Born of American inventive genius. Nurtured by necessity. Embraced by a free world. Cable expanded our vision, affirming our limitless potential as human beings."

The key word in this highfalutin remark is "cable," as in the Cable Center, an institution devoted to informing people about the many facets of cable telecommunication. But according to center president and CEO Jim O'Brien, the former president of Englewood's Jones Intercable, the organization would also like to be seen as an integral part of the community -- and in this respect, it's got a considerable way to go. Although the Center plans on maintaining a relatively low profile until the second half of 2002, when it should be fully functional, the messages it's sent out thus far have been mixed. For instance, its official name until recently was the National Cable Television Center and Museum. Today, however, O'Brien repeatedly emphasizes that "it's not a museum," despite the presence in its basement of innumerable gewgaws, including an early signal amplifier built out of a coffee can -- a reminder of cable's humble beginnings.

Willing and cable: Cable Center president and CEO Jim O'Brien.
Mark A. Manger
Willing and cable: Cable Center president and CEO Jim O'Brien.

This raises the question of what, exactly, the Cable Center is. Even many DU students don't seem too sure, but they've got a better idea than the public at large. Doyle Albee, a center publicist, recalls several of them shouting out to him, "Hey, can we get free cable?"

Don't count on it, because the Cable Center hasn't come cheaply; O'Brien predicts that the final price tag for bricks and mortar will be around $15.5 million, with an annual budget in the $3.5 million range. But the land was provided by DU, whose remarkable expansion has been largely fueled by dough from cable magnates like the late Bill Daniels, founder of Mile Hi Cablevision, and the equally late Bob Magness, who birthed Telecommunications Inc., popularly known as TCI. The property officially reverts to DU in just under 200 years -- "long after I'll have to worry about it," O'Brien says. Until then, it's a nonprofit enterprise that is affiliated with the university -- DU faculty members Dr. Ron Rizzuto and Dr. Mike Wirth are senior fellows -- but technically independent.

"All the money to build it was raised privately," O'Brien notes.

The names on that donation list are a who's who of the telecommunications industry, including Gerald Levin, CEO and chairman of AOL Time Warner, who handed over $10 million. And the center's not done with its capital campaign: A placard stuck to the base of the video tower in the great hall offers a "naming opportunity" for just $3 million. But overall, the operation appears to be exceedingly well-financed, with many of the biggest donors already having been saluted for their vision. Since 1998, the center has inducted members into its hall of fame, and a high percentage of them have been big backers such as Daniels, Magness, Levin, Gerry and center co-founder George Barco, all of whom will have a prominent spot on the "heritage walk," a sort of video timeline to be installed on a second-floor pathway overlooking the great hall.

Local cable cowboy John Malone and Ted Turner, the gazillionaire behind TBS, TNT and TCM, are in the hall of fame as well. As for this year's honorees, who will be feted November 27 at a bash in Anaheim, California, they include Adelphia Communications head John Rigas, the namesake of the center's theater, plus a raft of big wheels little known outside the industry, including ex-Scientific Atlanta chair Sid Topol, whose company manufactures "transportable earth stations" used to deliver satellite TV for cable, and USA Networks founder Kay Koplovitz.

Following the festivities, Turner has agreed to videotape a testimonial that will be preserved for posterity at the Cable Center alongside its other collections. The largest of these is the TCI archive, which juxtaposes items of intense interest to authors and historians, such as over 2,000 audiotapes and videos from board meetings and FCC proceedings, with self-proclaimed "ephemera" like mugs, caps and T-shirts.

All of this implies that the Cable Center is principally a lavish vanity project -- a monument to cable titans that they're funding themselves. But O'Brien says nothing could be further from the truth: "Our number-one mission is education. We want to teach people about the past, the present, and especially the future of cable."

The way O'Brien tells it, the roots of the Cable Center stretch back to the mid-'80s, when some of the original cable entrepreneurs realized that their business needed a place where its most treasured artifacts, documents and programming could be stored and preserved. At first it looked as if Penn State University, near the home of center co-founder Barco, would wind up with this plum, but the institution didn't have space available, opening the door for DU chancellor Daniel Ritchie, the former president of Westinghouse Broadcasting, to lure cable's kingpins to DU.

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