Getting Back to Basics

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My cast is off and the gloves are back on, just in time to deliver a wake-up jab to cable, which lost some 270,000 customers while DBS gained 800,000 this past quarter.

I feel your pain. Like me, who had microsurgery on my hand for not paying attention to what I was doing, the industry took its eye off the ball and is now among the walking wounded.

After sustaining such a sizeable loss of subscribers, and now a further loss of confidence on Wall Street, cable’s road to recovery will not be of short duration.

Clearly, DBS has made some major inroads here. While I haven’t been doing too much writing or e-mailing, I have been spending a lot of time listening and meeting face to face with many of you, as all ask, “What in the heck happened to cable?”

Maybe it’s time for some of our cable leaders to turn off their Blackberries, get out of their glass towers and spend some serious face time with customers and programming partners.

No doubt, cable was on a great roll. It bet and won that heady trifecta gamble of bundling video, high-speed data connectivity and voice. But while all that was going on, cable continued to ignore a stark fact — it has not been growing its core business for a long time.

One could say cable was distracted by its own success in areas that are not its core business.

And the highly competitive DBS players watched that steady decline and went for cable’s jugular — or glaring Achilles heel, I should say — by pricing and promoting their services accordingly.

One could say that cable put out a lot of low-hanging fruit for its competitors to easily pluck up. So now what?

Interestingly, Cablevision Systems Corp. was not among those reporting losses to its core audience. The company actually picked up new subscribers. Now why is that?

Personally, I think it has something to do with localism. In its markets, Cablevision devotes several channels to news, weather, traffic and sports. That’s the meat-and-potatoes kind of programming that satellite will never really provide.

Is it compelling enough? Of course not. But it’s a start.

The next step is for cable operators is to re-examine how each and every network carried is actually performing. I can’t remember the last time my cable operator asked me, as a subscriber, what I would like to see in terms of new channels, surveys once sent as a bill-stuffer.

Programmers, with their affiliate marketing departments, are eager to help. Look at some of our Freeze Frame photos throughout the year, and you’ll see a number of programmers teaming up with local systems to create goodwill in a community.

That’s localism at its best, and good business for both programmers and operators, who quite often forget that they are partners, rather than adversaries.

Cable can win the battle against DBS, but only if it pays greater attention to the basics. That’s the new battleground. It’s time for operators to put the boxing gloves back on, too.