Carl Pilnick makes few headlines, but the consultant hired by Montgomery County to assess the bids of eight firms competing for a lucrative franchise there is one of the few experts in the high stakes world of cable television.
The 59-year-old Pilnick, nicknamed the "Silver Fox" by his colleagues because of his silver gray hair, has been hired by more than 50 communities to guide them in the technically complicated franchise selection process. He logs between 5,000 and 8,000 flying miles per week from his Los Angeles base advising officials in Minneapolis, New Orleans, Baltimore, and a consortium of municipalities outside Chicago.
For elected officials, buried beneath volumes of technical cable system proposals, Pilnick is the man who turns Greek into English, who describes state-of-the-art capabilities in laymen's terms and separates "blue-sky promises" from realistic bids.
In Baltimore, where city officials are preparing a request for proposals before formal bids are accepted for its franchise, people affiliated with the process say Pilnick has not only added technical expertise, but has helped to instill confidence in those dealing with cable systems for the first time.
"We were trying to figure out what 'addressable' means in cable jargon," said Bob Corrigan, Baltimore's Community Antenna Television project manager. " Pilnick just leans back and starts explaining. It's that good mellow tone from southern California and it just rolls out. All of a sudden, it's simple."
But Pilnick says it is far from simple to reduce the voluminous proposals to a single recommendation. He frequently prefers to give officials a choice among a group of cable firms whose proposals are similar rather than singling out one company. This is the method he used last week in a 113-page report advising Montgomery County that four of its eight bidders were nearly equal. "My opinion is that there is no clear path," Pilnick says, "but some are more dangerous than others."
Pilnick is a Hempstead, N.Y., native who earned an electrical engineering degree from the State College of New York and a master's from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., in 1953. He began his career designing communications systems for the aerospace industry in California.
Pilnick's first effort with cable consulting was in 1966 in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Newport Beach. "I had enough technical background to be able to help them. We started out by learning together," Pilnick recalls.
Since then, Pilnick's six-member, $400,000-a-year Telecommunications Management Corp. has become one of the three most sought after cable consulting firms in the country, along with the Washington, D.C., firm of Malarkey Taylor and Associates and the Arlington-based Cable Television Information Center. Montgomery County is paying him $47,000 for his advice.
Colleagues describe Pilnick as the unassuming sort who could blend into any crowd. With his silver gray hair, conservative suits and horned-rim glasses, Pilnick resembles a bank president.
"A typical week is getting to be almost unmanageable. I'm traveling three to five days a week. The natives just don't come to you," Pilnick said. Juggling so many operations at once frequently means that questions from government officials are handled by long distance.
"I've had many more telephone calls with him than visits here," said John Hansman, Montgomery County's cable television project manager. "He is usually very accommodating . . . I can hardly think of any issue that we've dealt with when we haven't consulted him."
Pilnick has been called unflappable by cable firm representatives who have balked at the low ranking he has sometimes given their companies. One such exchange occurred in New Orleans in 1981 when Pilnick didn't include the bid of Denver-based Telecommunication Inc. in the top three positions among eight competitors.
"I tried to eat his lunch every way from Sunday," said Paul Alden, franchise director of Telecommunications Inc., but "he just sat there and never changed his mind. I haven't always liked his decisions, but he's one of the cleanest people in this business."
(An affiliate of Telecommunications Inc, Telemont, rated in Pilnick's top four in Montgomery. The other three that Pilnick said rated as equally qualified were Tribune-United, Times Mirror and Viacom.)
Of Pilnick's work in New Orleans, City Council President Sidney Barthelemy said: "He provided us with the objective decisions. We handled the politics. You cannot remove the politics from such a decision, but he did put us in a posture so that we could say to some other firm: 'Your proposal did not fall into the top three and this is why it didn't.' "
Pilnick has found some selection processes smoother than others.
In Minneapolis, two months before a primary election, the 13-member city council voted 7 to 6 to award its franchise to an affiliate of a Canadian cable system. But after the election, one council man changed his mind and a new vote, again 7 to 6, awarded the franchise to a subsidiary of Storer Communications.
"The first company sued and a court agreed with the second firm," Pilnick recalled. "The mayor felt the whole process was wrong and was considering the option of public ownership." Then a Minnesota board that oversees cable said they would not certify the selection process, according to city officials.
Enter Pilnick. The two firms decided to share the franchise and Pilnick worked out a system that they will both operate. The city council voted 13 to 0 to support it.
"Now I think we have the best contract in the country. I'd give Pilnick a lot of the credit for it," said Minneapolis City Council member Walter Dziedzic. Council President Alice Rainville added: "Carl was an outstanding resource. He just is a person who instills trust and doesn't intimidate you."