Code Orange: Cable Chatter

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Thousands of cable executives are in New York this week to attend a host of Diversity Week events, with the Walter Kaitz Foundation fundraising dinner the glue that will keep most folks in town for the whole span.

The timing is great for such a pow wow of industry titans. Given the volatility of the summer — with cable stocks plummeting and Adelphia Communications Corp. executives taking their now-infamous "perp walk" — the chatter level, if you will, will be intense at the myriad of breakfasts, lunches, cocktail parties and dinners to take place.

By then, but not as of this writing, an indictment could come down on the Rigas fiasco. Funny, it was only two years ago that Adelphia chairman John Rigas was the Kaitz dinner honoree.

This year's honoree, Comcast Corp. chieftain Brian Roberts, will be the center of plenty of chatter himself. Roberts is getting nearer to closing his deal to acquire AT&T Broadband, a transaction that will create a gargantuan MSO with 23 million subscribers, if it gets regulatory approval.

Talk about more chatter: How about that Dolan gang sending off high-alert signals of its own? Last week, Cablevision Systems Corp. chairman Charles Dolan told The New York Times, "We're not in love with our assets." He was referring specifically to his own cable systems in the New York area, which form the donut around Time Warner Cable's subscribers in Manhattan.

Cablevision had earlier announced a plan to sell off some of its non-strategic assets, like a chain of movie theaters and about half of its The Wiz electronics stores. They did that to take care of a looming cash-deficit problem.

But Wall Street thought the plan was tepid, even though Cablevision was also slashing capital spending and laying off even more employees.

Dolan had said that now could very well be the time to monetize the cable systems.

Last week, after everyone read that bombshell from Dolan, no one — like the FBI, which was supposedly monitoring chatter from terror cells but didn't foresee the events of Sept. 11 — seemed to be taking it all that seriously.

For starters, it's really a rotten time to be selling a cable system. On top of that, intended suitor AOL Time Warner Inc. has a lot on its plate right now, and is contemplating spinning off Time Warner Cable next year.

But mostly, no one seems to believe that the senior Dolan — who has sat at many a negotiating table with many potential buyers — really wants to sell. Instead, history has shown that he has left many would-be buyers baffled, always raising the price and never cutting a deal.

To me Dolan's statements last week were really all about boosting Cablevision's stock, which needs it. And the press stunt evidently worked: Cablevision's stock jumped 7 percent, to $11.70, the day after the article appeared.

There are other cable players to chatter about next week. Charter Communications Inc. executives have a little ongoing grand-jury probe of their own to deal with. And then there's the possibility of other huge changes for that MSO. Earlier in the summer, Paul Allen — Charter's deep-pocketed owner — had made some noises about taking the company private.

On many fronts, the chatter surrounding cable companies has reached a new, all-time-high decibel level going into Diversity Week. And we will be there to help you monitor and filter all of the goings on.

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