Cheers to an Original

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A cable original, by way of southern Italy and the Bronx, had the spotlight to himself at last Tuesday's New York Cable Club lunch.

As you'll read elsewhere in these pages, Rocco Commisso — who is often proud to point out that he's one of the last of the chairman-CEO combinations in cable — has a lot to say about the programming-cost quotient of his business. Of course he does. That's a key reason why he's often asked to speak, whether as one of the "Magnificent Seven" empaneled at the recently ended National Show, or solo, this time with questions from Multichannel News editor in chief Marianne Paskowski.

But to mangle what candidate Reagan once said, Mediacom's chairman-CEO has paid plenty to get that microphone. Commisso's earned the right to be outspoken. And what he has to say is a darn sight more than programmer-bashing.

For one, he laments the old days, when more than a half-dozen or so companies controlled a majority of cable subscribers.

"I remember the days when there were 50 of us," he said last week. "And that was fun, because we could talk about other things than programming."

Beyond nostalgia, that's a heartfelt desire to see a pioneering free-enterprise spirit remain in the business, both on the distribution and creative sides. "I think we have lost it, a lot," already, he said.

He also subtly (no kidding) reminded lunch-goers of one of his standard messages at gatherings a few years ago: Namely, why was so much capital getting squandered on so-called triple-play overbuilders who surely couldn't make the same kind of 10-year projections he always shows investors?

That was self-serving, sure, because those were his and other MSOs' rivals. But he was also proven right when the bubble burst.

He has a lot to say about what he sees as the inequity of the volume discounts bigger distributors enjoy — and which they sometimes share with affiliates willing to pool their assets in joint ventures or in exchange for chunks of equity. Why should he pay more because he's independent? And, in a new twist on the argument (at least to me), why should he pay more for programming than the former, bigger owners of his systems paid the day before he changed the signs?

Again, that's self-serving, but maybe there's enough logic there to somehow make an impact. Ditto with his theory that programming fees should wax and wane, pegged to ratings or some other impact criteria. Maybe he'd lower his cable rates some years if that happened. If it's credible to think he'd at least freeze rates to gain a competitive edge against EchoStar and DirecTV — who've completely stalled Mediacom's basic-subscriber growth — then a cable network might do the same, right?

Commisso started Mediacom soon after his former employer, CableVision Industries, sold out to Time Warner Cable in 1994. As he'll always point out, he's bought relative bargains, via 22 deals at an average subscriber cost of $2,100 (his numbers last week).

Even though systems have sold for twice that amount between then and now, Commisso is still here. Grumbling aside, he still shows no sign of wanting to get out of the business.

For that, lots of people should be happy — including programmers, as he said himself last week.

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