Cable's Spin-Doctor Tour Takes Execs on the Road

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The cable industry, looking to get its broadband and programming messages across nationwide, is embarking on a series of media initiatives designed to burnish its image in the minds of consumers.

As part of the effort — which is being spearheaded by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association — MSO and cable-network officials are meeting with the editorial boards of major newspapers, touting the cable industry's leadership role in broadband deployment and discussing the dynamics of the business.

Elsewhere, the NCTA, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau and the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing have teamed to develop a major fall "advertorial" project touting the virtues of cable's original shows that will run next month in The New York Times Magazine.

And another NCTA-driven initiative that would create a cable-only, New York City-based press tour is also being considered, according to industry executives.

EDITORIAL TOUR

In the first NCTA-led effort, officials from the association, MSOs and cable networks are meeting with the editorial boards of major newspapers. They're touting the cable industry's leadership role in broadband deployment and discussing the dynamics of the business.

NCTA president Robert Sachs has participated in some of the visits with newspaper editorial boards. So far, there have been sessions with USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Providence (R.I.) Journal
and, just last week, The Arizona Republic
in Phoenix, Ariz.

"The consumer press has a lot of false perceptions about cable," NCTA spokesman Marc Osgoode Smith said. "This is a good opportunity to establish a relationship and promote the positive, correct the negative."

On Aug. 12, the NCTA took its show on the road to Phoenix and the biggest local daily, the Republic. Cox Communications Inc. CEO James Robbins, Cox Phoenix general manager Steve Rizley, Lifetime Television CEO Carole Black, Wink Communications Inc. CEOMaggie Wilderotter and NCTA senior vice president of communications and public affairs Rob Stoddard met with editors and reporters.

The Republic
ran a story on the meeting the next day, but the headline and lead paragraph said that Cox may raise rates in Phoenix next year, based on remarks by Rizley. This year, Cox froze rates in Phoenix, where the cable operator faces stiff competition.

Cox officials told the Republic
that rising sports costs might force a rate increase.

PLEASED ANYWAY

Cox and NCTA officials said they were surprised both that the writer led off the story with the potential 2003 rate increase, and that the piece said the meeting was part of cable's lobbying effort "to stave off" reregulation.

Still, Cox and NCTA officials said that overall, they were pleased with the outcome in Phoenix. Robbins was quoted talking about how skyrocketing salaries for pro athletes have inflated sports-programming costs, which cable operators must then pass on to subscribers.

The NCTA's meeting with The Providence Journal, situated in a state where Cox is the dominant cable operator,
also yielded a story. As in Phoenix, Robbins participated in that meeting, and the paper ran a question-and-answer style interview with him on July 30.

But the cable editorial board meetings, which began in the spring, are not necessarily intended to generate press, according to Smith.

"Our objective is not to get a piece [story]," Smith said. "It's to establish relationships."

The idea is for newspapers and cable officials to be able to put a face on a name during their future dealings, and for cable "to stress the value message" of the medium, he said.

For the New York City-based papers, Time Warner Cable chairman Glenn Britt and Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner took part, as did Showtime CEO Matt Blank, Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff and Nickolas Davatzes, CEO of A&E Television Networks.

In Washington, Comcast Corp. president Brian Roberts took part in the meetings with USA Today
and The Washington Post.
Oxygen CEO Geraldine Laybourne was the programmer who took part in the editorial board meetings in Washington and Providence.

There are no additional meetings scheduled at present, but the NCTA would like to continue its efforts in markets such as Los Angeles and Seattle, according to Smith.

ADVERTORIAL INITIATIVE

The cable-programming advertorial will appear as an insert in the Sept. 29 The New York Times Magazine, touting what the industry considers to be the breadth, innovation, creativity and critical acclaim of cable's original programming at the height of broadcast television's fall-season launch.

"It's critical that the industry as a collective body strongly promote and publicize its programming offerings, particularly as the product continues to improve and earn the respect of viewers," the NCTA's Stoddard said.

The unprecedented, ad-supported initiative is the brainchild of the CAB, but all three organizations are actively lobbying their programmer members to participate.

The project will be divided into several genres, including comedy, documentary, drama, sports and multicultural programming, CAB spokesman Steve Raddock said. Content will include programming profiles from both basic-cable and premium services and will highlight current and future original shows, added CTAM vice president of communications Ann Cowen.

Raddock said the advertorial's Sept. 29 debut date coincides with the launch of the fall broadcast season, which historically draws the attention of TV writers at the expense of cable programming.

"It was perfect timing and an opportunity to do something in The New York Times Magazine, which reaches millions of readers, including key business executives and legislators, as well as viewers," Raddock said. "It's a good business and consumer push for all of us."

Most networks will take part in the editorial end of the project, although it was unclear at press time how many had purchased ads in the advertorial. Cable executives hope the final product will run 16 to 24 pages.

Most programming executives believe the advertorial will provide additional exposure to original cable programming during a period when cable's message often gets lost in the glut of new, original broadcast-network series debuts.

"Drawing more attention of quality programming on cable can only be beneficial," said Home Box Office director of corporate affairs Jeff Cusson.

For its part, HBO will bow the fourth season of The Sopranos, its biggest series hit, on Sept. 15. MTV: Music Televison will also jump into the middle of the broadcast barrage with the second season of The Osbournes
sometime this fall.

NYC CRITICS CONFAB

The NCTA has also been spearheading efforts to create a potential New York-based press tour that, like the biannual national Television Critics Association press confab in Southern California, would give cable networks the opportunity to present new programming fare to TV writers.

The NCTA had hoped to launch a one- to three-day, cable-only press tour — which would originate primarily from cable-network offices around the New York City area — as early as October.

But after receiving mixed reviews from programmers who were concerned about the short turnaround window, Stoddard said the NCTA has tabled the idea for now.

"It's unlikely that we will proceed with that [October] concept, but it's an idea that will probably stay in play for the long term," he said. "While people were supportive of the idea of conducting events in NYC and on the East Coast, it was our judgement that there wasn't strong enough support to do a series of events at this time."

The idea behind the tour is to provide TV writers with access to New York-based cable networks that may not have had the opportunity to participate during the broadcast network-dominated January and July TCA events, Stoddard said.

MORE TIME, LESS CASH

While established programmers such as HBO, Turner Network Television and Showtime Networks receive generous time slots at the TCA, smaller outfits such as Game Show Network often don't get time to present during the tour's cable block, which usually spans only three to five days.

And given the tremendous financial strain TCA presentations place on networks — estimated at $50,000 to $100,000 per tour — the cable-only event could serve as a less-expensive option for some.

The catalyst for both initiatives has been the tremendous performance in ratings and viewership that cable programming has achieved against broadcast-network fare in recent months. Buoyed by the ratings success of such cable originals as USA Network's Dead Zone
and Monk, FX's The Shield, MTV's The Osbournes
and E! Entertainment Television's The Anna Nicole Show, the industry has set all-time viewership-share records while slashing into the broadcast network's once-dominant audience share.

"The last year, in general, has been phenomenally great for cable in terms of viewership growth, and the past summer has been incredible," Raddock said. "The hope is to make some noise immediately prior to the launch of the broadcast season and also help to sustain viewership momentum the industry has established."

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