Meet The Gatekeepers5/31/2011 8:01 AM Eastern
They are the executives who
largely determine what Americans see
on their TV screens — the programming
gatekeepers at cable companies, satellite
providers and telecom giants. They wield
tremendous power. They can make or
break a TV network.
These officials, many of them lawyers, are consistently
described as smart and tough by the network affiliate-
sales officials they negotiate deals with. Some are
characterized as low-key and amiable, others as difficult
and sometimes sarcastic. Some depend heavily on their
teams, as they focus on big-picture strategy. Others demand
to be hands-on to craft major agreements.
is that they oversee the negotiations of carriage agreements
that have becoming increasingly complex over the
years, some inches thick, as deals expand to include not
only cable-network carriage and retransmission consent
but new technology such as network digital video recorders,
smart phones and iPads.
The players, and their relative clout and leverage, have
changed over time. And during the past several years, there
has been major turnover, a changing of the guard, in terms
of the men and women who head up programming at distributor
For example, Greg Rigdon has replaced Matt Bond at
Comcast Cable Communications, with the title of executive
vice president of content acquisition. Melinda Witmer
has succeeded her famed and feared mentor, the late Fred
Dressler, at Time Warner Cable. And David Shull took over
as senior vice president of programming at Dish Network
after Eric Sahl left the satellite provider.
Today, the two satellite-TV providers, DirecTV and Dish
Network, are the second- and third-largest video providers,
respectively. Th at means Derek Chang, DirecTV’s executive
vice president of content strategy and development,
can give a start-up service a platform that can ensure its
survival. At Dish Network, Shull basically follows the corporate
strategy as set by chairman Charlie Ergen: Keep
costs down, even if it means dropping a service and forfeiting
some subscribers in the process.
It used to be that Dish Network was the distributor making
the most headlines in those kinds of disputes. But in
the past several years Cablevision Systems, whose longtime
programming chief is Mac Budill, has engaged in several
high-profile, bitter confl icts with programmers and broadcasters
in the New York metro market.
Rigdon’s duties include making sure that Comcast
adheres to the commitments it made, in terms of the
programming it launches and carries, as a condition for
approval of Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal.
To get a sense of what it’s like to sit across the table from
these key players, Multichannel News interviewed several
current and former affiliate-sales executives at programming
companies, whose names were withheld so that they might
speak candidly without fear of repercussion.
Executive vice president of content acquisition
Comcast Cable Communications
22.8 million subscribers
Greg Rigdon is king of content at the nation’s largest MSO, Comcast
Cable Communications. He was named executive vice president
of content acquisition in late 2010, succeeding Matt Bond,
who moved to NBCUniversal.
On the job for less than half a year, Rigdon’s duties include ensuring his MSO complies
with the conditions federal regulators set on Comcast’s NBCU acquisition. One example:
Comcast committed to launching 10 new independent networks, and is now seeking proposals
for the first three.
Comcast Cable president Neil Smit, Rigdon’s boss at AOL and Charter Communications,
recruited him to Philadelphia. Through his stint at AOL, Rigdon acquired a background
in the digital world likely to serve him well at Comcast.
His style and demeanor are a 180-degree change from Bond, several affiliate-sales
chiefs said. While Bond was “laconic” and buttoned-down, Rigdon is “a little sarcastic,
kind of hip … a funnier kind of easy-going kind of guy, but he’s plenty tough,” one veteran
affiliate-sales executive said.
Under Bond, Jennifer Gaiski, senior VP of content acquisition, would typically handle
operational issues and deal with programming officials in the field, making sure network
commitments are fulfilled. Senior VP Alan Dannenbaum, who also is executive VP of satellite
services, typically did the nuts-and-bolts negotiations on deals. It remains to be seen
if that dynamic will continue.
Executive vice president of content strategy
19.4 million subscribers
DirecTV is second only to Comcast among U.S. pay TV providers,
which puts Derek Chang in a strong position when he sits across the negotiating table
A veteran of Charter Communications and the YES Network, Chang’s background is
deal-making and finance. He’s described as very smart, direct and no nonsense, with a
bit of an edge.
“Derek’s tough,” one network affiliate-sales chief said. “You better have your ducks in
a row when you go in there … He knows the type of business deal he needs to do and
he’s not going to back off of that.”
DirecTV officials “know that they can make or break a channel, and they sort of speak
softly and carry a big stick,” a second official said. While it will sometimes drop networks
in disputes, DirecTV has not been as aggressive in that regard as Dish Network or Cablevision
Systems. Chang understands “the danger of mutual disruption,” one network
executive put it. DirecTV boasts it’s the best TV provider, and can’t risk alienating subscribers
by altering its lineup.
Chang, who joined DirecTV in March 2006, is now involved in developing big-picture, longterm
strategies for the satellite company. So he often defers to his team, which includes
senior VP of program acquisition Dan Hartman, in nitty-gritty, routine contract talks. Chang “is
not a guy who’s going to get knee-deep in the weeds,” a second affiliate-sales chief said.
Senior vice president of programming
14.2 million subscribers
Dish Network’s reputation, or notoriety, for dropping cable networks
and TV stations is known far and wide in the TV industry. That
scorched-earth strategy comes straight from the top, meaning chairman
Charlie Ergen. But David Shull, the satellite provider’s senior vice president of programming,
is the executive charged with carrying out that mandate.
Shull has been with Dish Network since 2004, but spent much of his time in Asia, overseeing
operations overseas. In late 2008, Dish brought Shull home to succeed Eric Sahl
as programming chief.
The game plan for the No. 3 U.S. multichannel-video provider is to be the low-cost
option. That said, Shull negotiates firmly and politely, laying out — without any histrionics
— exactly what Dish Network will do if it doesn’t get the deal it wants.
“He’s a likable guy; he’s pretty easy-going,” said one affiliate-sales executive.
“He’s got to beat people up, but he doesn’t do it in a style that’s real aggressive or
Shull is described as smart and somewhat intellectual, a Harvard University graduate.
He is still learning the ropes in terms of programming and depends on his team, which
includes Carolyn Crawford, vice president of programming.
Dish Network will likely continue to take its licks, and risk losing subscribers, by
kicking networks off its lineup in order to keep its costs in check, programming
Executive vice president and chief programming officer
Time Warner Cable
12.3 million subscribers
Melinda Witmer was handpicked by legendary Time Warner Cable
programming chief Fred Dressler in 2006 as his replacement. And
she’s already succeeded in establishing her own reputation as a personable,
but hardnosed, negotiator at the No 4 U.S. pay TV provider.
“I would call her one of the more engaging, personality-wise, in terms of some of the
gatekeepers,” one affiliate-sales chief said. “She’s always very pleasant, but that doesn’t
mean she’s going to give in on anything. She can also be very pleasant when she’s telling
you that something’s never going to happen.”
This spring, Witmer and TWC made headlines when networks balked at being included
as part of the MSO’s new iPad streaming-video app. TWC was bombarded with complaints
and cease-and-desist warning letters from programmers.
Witmer, an attorney, claims she didn’t anticipate programmers “would be unhappy” about
the iPad app. Skeptical network affiliate-sales officials say that Witmer must have expected
pushback from programmers, although she may have underestimated exactly “what type of
nerve this was going to press on,” the affiliate-sales chief said.
A second affiliate-sales executive added, “She tends to push the envelope, as she has
now with the iPad.”
Under Witmer, TWC takes more of a team approach to negotiating than other MSOs,
and she will have often have several lieutenants— such as VP of programming Andy
Rosenberg — with her at meetings.
Senior vice president of programming
4.9 million subscribers
Bob Wilson, a Cox Communications executive for more than three
decades, has been the architect of its programming lineup for quite
some time. In that span, he’s won the respect of the network affiliatesales
chiefs who face him across the negotiating table.
Wilson joined Cox in 1979, moving up the corporate ladder to be named senior vice
president of programming in 1997. He’s considered good natured, but “no pushover,” a
Low-profile and low-key, Wilson exemplifies the corporate culture of Cox and its president,
“They all have that same kind of personality,” an affiliate-sales chief said. “They’re
smart. They’re tough inside. They don’t do anything stupid.”
Wilson is perceived as a creative deal-maker willing to craft affiliation agreements that
are win-win situations for both parties.
“Bob has a unique ability to deliver a difficult message and have it not sound like a
difficult message,” said a second affiliate-sales executive.
Programmers universally laud the team Wilson has built and relies on, VPs of content
acquisition Kathy Payne and Andy Albert.
“They don’t have to hit you over the head with a hammer,” said the second-affiliate
sales official. “They’ll come up with several other creative solutions that will work for both
parties. … He gets rewarded for that.”
With systems from Florida to California, Wilson pays attention to what his local general
managers say they need. “If Vegas says they need a network, corporate won’t override
that,” an affiliate-sales chief said.
Senior vice president of programming
4.2 million subscribers
Allan Singer did a brief stint on the other side of the negotiating table,
as head of distribution for Oprah Winfrey’s cable network, but he was
soon back on the MSO side of the business.
A veteran of Comcast and AT&T Broadband, Singer was named senior vice president
of programming for Charter Communications in April. He came to Charter from OWN: The
Oprah Winfrey Network, where he had served as executive vice president of distribution
and strategy since November 2009.
At Comcast, Singer served in various positions. He signed on in 2003 as senior vice
president for the MSO’s new programming-investments unit, reporting to Amy Banse.
Several years later, Comcast SportsNet tapped Singer for the newly created position of
senior vice president of sports business development.
Before joining OWN, Singer had served as senior vice president of content acquisition
for Comcast Cable.
Singer won’t have any of the clout he had at Comcast, given that Charter is about onefifth of the size.
Described as very smart and “a jack of all trades” by one affiliate-sales chief, Singer is
also known for sometimes getting passionate, heated and animated during negotiations.
“He may have a bit of Jedd Palmer in him,” another affiliate-sales veteran said,
referring to the former head of programming at John Malone’s long-gone MSO,
Vice president of content and programming
3.7 million subscribers
Terry Denson had a herculean task when Verizon Communicatins
hired him in 2004 to acquire content for the telco’s start-up video
service, FiOS TV.
Denson, a Harvard University alumnus who earned his law degree from Georgetown
University, had to quickly close carriage deals so that FiOS would have a presentable
program lineup when it debuted.
“It’s a tough situation when you’re trying to build a channel lineup in the beginning and
just had to get product up,” one affiliate-sales chief said.
Denson had the right background for the task. Earlier he had negotiated carriage
agreements in affiliate sales at MTV Networks. Right before joining Verizon, he was VP
of programming for Insight Communications.
Verizon promoted Denson to his current title in late 2008, expanding his duties to include
broadband and Verizon Wireless.
Denson is considered low-key and smart. But to initially secure content for FiOS, which
had no subscribers and therefore, no leverage, Denson had to pay top dollar — the top of
rate cards — to programmers.
“He in the last year has been righting a lot of those wrongs with his renegotiations,” a
second affiliate-sales official said. “That’s not an easy position to be in.”
Denson is trying to push harder, but at its current (though growing) size, FiOS is still
without much leverage. He’s a built a strong team, though, which includes Bill Binford,
director of content strategy and acquisition.
Executive vice president of programming
3.3 million subscribers
E. McRae (Mac) Budill has spent two decades at Cablevision Systems,
which has increasingly been willing to mix it up with programmers
— and to boot networks and TV stations from its lineup.
In the past year or so, Cablevision has been in contract disputes that resulted in drops
of properties owned by Scripps Networks Interactive, The Walt Disney Co. and Fox. Those
battles were very public and very nasty.
It’s all in a day’s work for Budill, whose MSO is led by a very hands-on president and
CEO, James Dolan.
Budill, an Ivy Leaguer who was an undergraduate at Yale University and got his MBA
from the Harvard Business School, joined Cablevision in 1991 as program manager. He
rose up the ranks to his current title while keeping a low, almost nonexistent, public profile. He really, if ever, talks to the press.
Cablevision isn’t the biggest MSO. But its system in the New York City market, with
more than 3 million subscribers, is the largest cable cluster in the nation, reaching Wall
Street and Madison Avenue. Network affiliate sales officials describe Budill as a direct,
smart negotiator who can be brutally hard-nosed and tough.
And, as noted above, when push comes to shove in programming talks, networks know that
the ultimate decisions come from the very top, especially at Cablevision.
“The Dolans, more than any other MSO, are very active in programming decisions,” one affiliate sales official pointed out.
President of content
3.2 million subscribers
Telco giant AT&T, like Verizon Communications, had to work hard to
do deals and fill out the programming lineup for its fl edgling video service,
AT&T U-verse. And Dan York was recruited for the task.
York, AT&T’s president of content, acquires programming for all of the telecom company’s
platforms, namely TV, broadband and wireless. He joined AT&T in 2004.
York is “a very cool dude” who loves music and sports, and he’s blessed with a dry sense of
humor, according to one affiliate-sales official. But the buzz on York is that he’s become less
affable as of late and has “turned it up.” That’s because AT&T had to pay high rates to line up
programming for AT&T U-verse. York is trying to rectify that as he renegotiates affiliation deals
with programmers, but it’s tough going at U-verse’s current size (though it is on the rise).
“He’s starting to carry a bigger stick,” the affiliate-sales chief said. “I think he’s very
frustrated trying to get MFNs (most-favored nation clauses, which protect against other
distributors getting better terms) and trying to get fair treatment. So he’s kind of coming
out swinging now, both in terms of his style across the table and in some cases following
through with dropping channels.”
Before AT&T, York was senior VP of programming for In Demand Networks. Prior to that,
York spent more than a dozen years at HBO, ending his stint there as vice president/general
manager of Time Warner Sports/HBO PPV.
National Cable Television Cooperative
Senior vice president of programming
Senior vice president,
chief sales and marketing officer
They don’t represent the largest MSOs, but these two executives are veteran programming
gatekeepers who are respected and considered straight shooters by network
Frank Hughes has been has been at the National Cable Television Cooperative since
1992, as senior vice president of programming. He joined the NCTC from HBO, and his job
is to try to muster clout by doing carriage deals that offer up the co-op’s members as a
group. NCTC members aren’t obligated to participate in a deal, which leaves Hughes without
the big bargaining chip of being able to guarantee networks a firm number of subscribers.
Describing Hughes as “one of the most genuine guys in the business,” one affiliatesales
chief said, “Frank understands what leverage he has and doesn’t have.”
Hughes is also credited with being a creative dealmaker, but no pushover.
“He can draw a line in the sand when he has to,” the affiliate-sales official said. “And
he’ll walk away from deals if they don’t work for his members. And that’s what you want
from someone at the co-op.”
The NCTC’s past chairman, Jerry McKenna, is senior vice president, chief sales and marketing
officer at Cable One and past chair of the NCTC. Although his MSO only has 647,000
subscribers, McKenna is tough, negotiating like he’s one of the Top 3 cable operators.
“He gets good deals by standing firm, said the affiliate-sales chief. “He’s not afraid to
make tough decisions on programming.”