Baltimore --After regaling an audience with tales
from cable's early days, four longtime MSO chieftains spoke confidently about new
opportunities and cautiously about cross-industry alliances.
Lenfest Communications Corp. chairman and CEO Gerry
Lenfest, whose company is half-owned by Tele-Communications Inc., said the future of his 1
million-subscriber operation may lie in combining with somebody bigger.
"Bigness will be better" in broadband
competition, he said.
But he warned, "The danger of doing that is that
there's always a pound of flesh." Partners usually want some kind of exclusive
access, which limits an operator's ability to partner with someone else later on, he
Adelphia Communications Corp. chairman and CEO John Rigas
said he expects the AT&T Corp. buyout of TCI to "work out to all of our
advantages." He, too, cautioned that AT&T generally wants to own the ventures
that it enters, which has made it impossible in the past for Adelphia to cut deals with
the former Ma Bell. AT&T has new management now, though, so that situation could be
different, he added.
Cablevision Systems Corp. chairman Charles Dolan said the
50-year-old industry's future lies in letting subscribers pick and choose among a
smorgasbord of optional "commodity services," giving the government less of the
business to regulate.
All four bootstrap cable entrepreneurs were asked what it
would take for them to join the other pioneers who have sold out of the business. Rigas
joked that he was the worst person to ask: He still owns the money-losing movie theater
that he bought in Coudersport, Pa., before acquiring his first cable franchise in the
1950s. But his serious response was: when his sons tell him that it's time.
Dolan replied with what sounded like a standardized
formula. He said the time to sell is when a suitor offers more than what the current owner
figures the business will be worth in the future.
All had harrowing tales of their first steps into cable
entrepreneurship. Bresnan Communications chairman William Bresnan said the Rochester,
Minn., mayor warned him -- after granting him his first cable franchise, in 1958 -- that
it was a free country, so Bresnan should have his chance to lose money any way he wanted.
For that, Bresnan said, he gave up a secure radio- and TV-sales business.
But now, Bresnan has rebuilt, two-way, 750-megahertz
systems and several family members in the business, and he's glad to be in when the
future looks so exciting. Said Bresnan: "I'm on for the ride."