Backtalk: Cables March to Atlanta


Maybe my overly active imagination is in overdrive again.After all, I recently sat rapt through all four-plus hours of an uninterrupted version of Gonewith the Wind on Turner Classic Movies.

Or maybe it's just the nonstop pressure of puttingtogether our tome-sized show issue, which is making me feel like I'm fighting anuphill battle, as we all prepare to head out to Atlanta.

But you have to admit that these weeks leading up to Cable'98 are beginning to resemble a re-enactment of the pivotal turning-point battle inthe Civil War: General William Tecumseh Sherman's bloody and devastating"Atlanta Campaign."

The timing, after all, is rather eerie. Sherman -- and anyreal History Channel buff will confirm this factoid -- set out to conquer Atlanta on May4, 1864.

Coincidentally, the National Cable Television Association is staging its annual conventionin Atlanta during that very same time frame -- granted, 135 years later.

Admittedly, no one from cable is threatening to secede fromthe Union yet. But the rift between cable operators and programmers remains strong, andsome members from both camps insist that it's even deepening.

Not unlike Sherman's historic defeat of theConfederates in Atlanta, Country Music Television recently waged war on a cable operatorin Columbus, Ohio, where the enemy -- the rebellious Coaxial Communications -- had thetemerity to replace CMT with another country-music cable network.

CMT's "scorched-earth tactics," as wereported several weeks ago, have already alienated other operators, which will likely makeit difficult for CBS Cable to get its other channels, like Eye on People, ever launched onCoaxial.

CMT pulled out all of the stops in its battle for carriagein Columbus. It ran newspaper ads in that market attacking Coaxial for replacing it withJones International Inc.'s Great American Country.

One ad actually accused Coaxial of doing a bait-and-switch,with CMT as the bait, and "you got the switch."

Coaxial officials said the decision to switch services wasbased on numerous factors, and GAC was a good service with a great deal: a launch fee foroperators, and more cable avails for the system.

CMT did not stop its blitz with the ads: The network drew aline in the sand and officially declared war when it reached a deal with PrimeStar tooffer one month's free service to Coaxial customers in Columbus who brought in theirlast month's cable bill.

CMT officials, as we reported earlier, said they respondedso forcefully because the Columbus system, with 92,000 subscribers, is the biggest marketever to drop CMT, and they wanted to send a strong message to other operators.

Well, that they did. Unfortunately, the local skirmish inColumbus has not only attracted the attention of other cable operators, but theirunbridled ire, as they didn't like the not-so thinly veiled threat that theyperceived in CMT's actions.

That battle in Columbus particularly incensed Lou Borrelli,executive vice president and chief operating officer for Marcus Cable.

As Borrelli said in his strongly wordedletter to the editor this week, CMT's retaliation tactics were just plain wrong.Sure, you can let the market know how you feel; encourage your viewers to make theiropinions known and heard; and publicly lobby to be returned. But underwriting a campaignto drop cable in favor of DBS? Two words: "bad form."

Borrelli, in a conversation that we had after I receivedthe letter, laughed when I said, "It could have been worse: CMT could have given awayDirecTv -- after all, PrimeStar is still a service owned by cable operators."

But, laughter aside, judge for yourself when you read ourupdate this week on the current state of the operator-programmer relationship. MSOs arestill stewing -- even though they understand why -- over the fact that ESPN passed on ahuge rate increase to them when it wound up betting the ranch for the National FootballLeague.

Then, on the heels of ESPN's 20 percent rate-cardincrease, Turner Network Television began floating its own rate hike, even though it lostits eight-game NFL deal.

Some MSO heads, like Tele-Communications Inc.'s Leo J.Hindery Jr., told us in this week's relationship story that in spite of these recentflare-ups, things are improving.

We hope that Hindery's on with his assessment. Cablehas seen too much infighting at a time when all of its sectors should be rejoicing theindustry's collective successes on many fronts, instead of declaring war.

<p> <strong id="d9e81-45-a">CBS Cable: They Still Don't Get It</strong> </p>

To the editor:

The last time I checked, cable operators still had the right to determine the content of their channel lineups (see "CMT Makes Fuss Over Switch Out," Multichannel News, 4-20-98, p. 1).

What this action tells me is that CBS hasn't learned a thing since "Midnight at the Oasis," better known as the "Debacle in the Desert."

Their retaliation tactics are just plain wrong. Sure, you can let the market know how you feel and encourage your viewers to make their opinions known and heard, and you can publicly lobby to be returned -- but underwriting a campaign to switch out? Two words: bad form.

And another thing: Coaxial [Communications] isn't just a top 50 MSO -- it is my partner in TeleSynergy along with 10 other companies that, combined, serve more than 5 million cable customers. Attacking them is attacking us, and we don't like being attacked one bit.

Come on, Lloyd [Lloyd Werner, EVP, sales and marketing, CBS Cable], wake up and smell the First Amendment! Program your network; make your pitch negotiate, negotiate, negotiate; and at the end of the day, live with your decision.

Lou Borrelli EVP/COO Marcus Cable