Lessons From a Most Agreeable Foe

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“Fred taught me that sometimes business can be good,” said YES Network chief operating officer Ray Hopkins, remembering watching the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks unfold in the office of former Time Warner Cable executive vice president of programming Fred Dressler, who died on Christmas Eve at 66.

“The planes hit while we were headed there to negotiate a big deal for Fox [Cable Networks]. We spent the next two days watching Fred's television. Where else did we have to go? Finally, Fred said, 'You want to try to do some work?' What followed was the most polite negotiation I ever witnessed with either Fred or [Fox distribution chief] Lindsay Gardner (author of this column). Fred taught me that sometimes it helps to concentrate on business when your world — quite literally — is falling down around you.”

Few executives had greater impact on the U.S. cable industry than Dressler. His handiwork can be found inside every Time Warner Cable home, in the channels that are delivered and packaged. However, many said Dressler's more lasting impact may be in the lessons imparted to scores of friends, colleagues and even bosses.

“Fred looked ahead in every deal he did,” said Comcast senior vice president of content acquisition Alan Singer. “He would place hooks in streams [where] you would never dream of taking your boat.”

AMC learned this in 2005 when, after years of wrangling, New York's Supreme Court ruled TWC could drop it entirely because it was showing more contemporary movies than permitted in the deal Dressler negotiated in the early 1990s. The two sides settled, at a rumored cost to Rainbow Media Holdings of at least $50 million.

Fox News Channel chairman and CEO Roger Ailes won a rare victory over Dressler in 1997, when Time Warner Cable bowed to pressure to launch Fox News Channel in New York City and elsewhere.

“I think he wanted people to like him,” Ailes remembered. “He was a fundamentally nice man.”

Indeed, Dressler delighted in talking of his friendship with Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons, who often called on Dressler for straight talk and feedback. “One of the things we heard over and over again in law school was the old saw that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable,” said Parsons.

Univision's Haim Saban heard “no” from Dressler more often than he heard “yes” during their 10-year friendship, much of which overlapped with Saban's ownership of Fox Family Channel. “I begged him to launch my channels,” said Saban. “Fred wouldn't budge, but I got something more valuable — his friendship — and the lesson that true friendship doesn't always mean saying yes.”

It is Nov. 15, and I am in Dressler's study at his Westport, Connecticut home. He is wrapped in a blue and orange blanket from his beloved Syracuse University, shifting uncomfortably on a leather couch; talking about the rising cost of sports channels, a la carte, his grandchildren and his cancer. After an hour, Fred is tired and walks me to the front door.

“Where I'm going Linds, you'll be joining me,” he said, taking my arm for emphasis. “If I've learned anything, it's that nobody gets out of this place alive.”

And with the wink and half-smile I had seen so often during 19 years, his last lesson to me sinks in: Keep perspective, be humble.

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