Jimmy Was Sending Signals

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BETHPAGE, N.Y.  – Jimmy Dolan looked a little uncomfortable standing at the podium Wednesday at the much anticipated special shareholders meeting to vote on the Dolan family’s $10.6 billion offer to take the cable company private. That, and the gloomy skies hovering over Cablevision’s headquarters here should have been the first tip on how that vote would eventually come out.

About 15 minutes later, senior vice president and corporate secretary Victoria Salhus let the cat out of the bag: the Dolans had not secured the necessary “majority of the minority” shareholder vote to approve the deal.

But prior to the announcement of the tally – the actual vote won’t be released for at least a couple of weeks, according to Cablevision – there were a few signs that all was not well in Dolan land. First off were Jim Dolan’s opening remarks to shareholders. 

“Before we begin with the business of today’s meeting, I would like to note how unusual and in many ways wonderful that is,” Jim Dolan said in opening the meeting. “Today we have a contested vote, but both sides have great optimism about the company’s future. On behalf of both the family and the company, we are grateful to all of our shareholders, no matter how they may vote, for their confidence in our product.”

Later, Dolan commented on the controversy that has surrounded the deal ever since the family made its latest offer in May.

“As you may know, there has been a lot of publicity surrounding this vote and many believe the proposal will not be approved,” Dolan said. “Accordingly, and in the interest of time, we will not have a formal question and answer period.”

About 10 minutes later the “many” were proved right.

Cablevision’s decision to forgo shareholder Q&A ticked off at least one shareholder who rose and called that decision “outrageous.” But it appeared to be in keeping with the unusually high – even for Cablevision – paranoia that seemed to envelop the meeting.

For example, reporters were each given a personal escort from Cablevision’s PR legions during the meeting (mine was Lisa Rogen, of Rainbow Media Holdings, who was as helpful as she could possibly be). The handful of reporters that actually showed for the meeting were herded into a small press room until the absolutely last minute – we were led to the meeting room at precisely 11 a.m. And one reporter mentioned that when he stepped outside the building before the meeting began to make a call on his cell phone, a beefy security guard tapped him on the shoulder to ask him what he was doing (Hello? I’m outside the building. On my own cellphone.)

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited from the meeting – this reporter had to remove the batteries from his tape recorder before being allowed entrance. That must have been wonderful for the Bloomberg TV and CNBC camera crews that were camped outside under white tents during the meeting.

And at one point during the meeting, while typing furiously on my laptop, another security guard tapped me on the shoulder, telling me to close my computer. Ms. Rogen, bless her heart, assured me that it was OK to keep typing, they were just worried that I might be text messaging out of the room. It just makes me wonder how trying to get information out of that company would be if in fact they were allowed to go private.

A few times during the meeting, Dolan fumbled and read the wrong page in his agenda – he kept wanting to move to the announcement of the preliminary vote, perhaps another sign that he just wanted to get out of the room.

After thanking shareholders for their time, that’s just what he did.