News

Barking Up a Storm

2/16/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

NEW YORK- The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, about 20 blocks south, had closed the day before, so the best place to watch two alpha dogs in action was at the Museum of Television and Radio last Wednesday night.

On the left sat Leo Hindery, former longtime cable operator and currently a cable sports-programming chief who's been famously unable to get his New York Yankees games shown on the biggest New York City area cable operator. That reluctant operator, not coincidentally, owns the cable network that used to show the Yankees.

On the far right - with two other, quieter media types in between - sat Rocco Commisso, another longtime cable operator, currently on a crusade to obtain flexibility in controlling the cost of the programming he sells to customers. He recently formally asked the FCC for permission, among other things, to compel expensive basic networks to be sold on an individual basis (à la carte).

I lack space for more background; as for set-up, John Higgins, Broadcasting & Cable's deputy editor,
asked the questions. (E-mail me at kgibbons@reedbusiness.com  for more on event sponsors and such.)

All three, counting Higgins, were in rare form, and made lots of solid points - sometimes memorably. It was about as good an exposition you're likely to get in cable these days. And it was a lot of fun.

Hindery, who now has a book out, has always been one for verbal flights, and he didn't disappoint. My favorite phrase, which I had to play back on tape: 'It's an industry that has sometimes enjoyed generalizations, and it sometimes enjoys non-homogenous perspectives.' The 'it' was cable, and I think he basically meant operators can take whichever side of the argument works best for them at the time.

As for selling sports and other costly nets separately, Hindery said subs would keep sports and drop many others, including nets controlled by operators (60 percent are, by his interested reckoning). 'C-SPAN, History, A&E, Discovery, CNN, Fox News - they'll simply disappear in an à la carte world. Simply disappear.'

Higgins pointed out that Yankees Sports & Entertainment Network wants to be on basic for lots of reasons, including to sell ads. Commisso said he realized à la carte isn't for everyone, and said ESPN might have to charge north of $20 per month to make up for lost ads.

'Even if they charge $20, they can never recoup their money,' he said, strongly implying (or at least I inferred) he wants to keep ESPN in reach financially, not make it go à la carte.

Other bites:

Hindery: 'We will go à la carte the day the industry goes à la carte. I guarantee you that the average cable operator - guarantee you - will lose half of his or her revenues the day they go à la carte.'

Commisso: 'If we get what we're asking for, I guarantee you - I'll make you a promise, like Leo makes promises - that all of this craziness that you're seeing running around, especially sports programming costs, will subside dramatically.'

Hindery: 'The only consistent form of programming to draw audience is sports, sex and violence.'

Higgins: 'You say that like it's a bad thing.'

Always leave them laughing, and maybe thinking.

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