Backtalk: David Vs. Goliath

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If you're a cable programmer who finds himself suddenlybarraged with phone calls, faxes or e-mails from subscribers complaining about their rateincreases in Ohio, odds are Robert Gessner, vice president of Massillon Cable TV Inc., isresponsible.

Last week, Massillon Cable made page one -- above the fold-- in the local Canton, Ohio, Repository, about how the company created a Web site-- www.sssnet.cox/expensivenetworks-- so that cable subscribers could take their complaints directly to the programmers.

Massillon, an independent operator, raised its rates to$26.25 per month for its 46-channel basic service, a $3.25 hike.

Gessner is quoted in the paper as saying programmers"raise rates because they can."

In a phoner with me last week, Gessner described his actionas the kind of "telephone terrorism" that cable programmers use all the timewhen they are trying to launch new services and run ads saying, "Call your cableoperator now to have them add" whichever new network they're hawking.

"Programmers do it all the time, so what's thedifference?" Gessner asked.

Gessner said that he doesn't know how many "hits"his Web site has gotten, since it just launched Nov. 18, or how many cable subscribershave sent faxes or made phone calls to programmers listed on his Web site.

On his Web site, where neither his name nor his company'sname appears, he writes, "I would like to enlist your help in trying to controlprogram-cost increases." He supplies names, addresses, fax numbers and phone numbersfor the networks he says have increased their rates the most.

His 10 targets are Arts & Entertainment Network; CNN;Discovery; ESPN; Home & Garden Television; Lifetime; Nickelodeon; The NashvilleNetwork; Fox Sports and VH1.

Those 10 program networks, Gessner further notes on his Website, "are very strange about the price of their programming. Their contracts do notallow a cable operator to discuss the actual price. However, I can show you the percentageincrease in costs. As you can see from this table, these networks have allowed programcosts to run wild."

He then urges cable subscribers to contact the 10 networkswith the largest percentage increases that he has paid at his own system. Massillon, asmall, independent operator, does not benefit from group volume-discount rates.

What is very misleading about the percentage increasesMassillon lists on his Web site is that the figures look like increases for a one-yearperiod, which, in fact, they are not.

In actuality, after asking him what those staggeringly highnumbers reflect, Gessner said that those increases were based on rates going up at hissystem since 1995.

For example, if Fox Sports gets a phone call, fax or e-mailfrom a Massillon cable subscriber, the company will likely hear about how its rates havegone up 358 percent, and not the actual yearly figure, which Gessner did not include onhis Web site.

The same is true for Home & Garden, which has had a 69percent increase, according to the Web site chart.

You have to give Gessner -- a guy who answers his own phone-- some credit for trying to stand up to the programming Goliaths of this industry bytrying to play their game.

But I really can't imagine that his tactics -- which are alittle misleading, especially the percentages cited -- will work any more effectively thanwhen programmers urge subscribers to call their systems to add new programming services.

If anything, Gessner's "telephone terrorism," ashe refers to it, is a little dangerous because it can only increase the rancor that existsamong programmers and operators.

Gessner's ire over ESPN oozed from his Web site. ESPN's"actions are atrocious, and they need to hear that message from viewers likeyou," he wrote.

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