Nimble Negotiator

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When Lynne Costantini talks, programmers listen.

Costantini, Time Warner Cable's vice president of programming, played a key role in the creation of a new channel called Sorpresa!, a Spanish-language children's network. Citing research, she suggested the need for such a Hispanic network, aimed at kids, to officials at programmer Firestone Communications.

"No one else was pursuing the niche, so she encouraged us to develop it," said Firestone chairman Leonard Firestone. He rolled out Sorpresa! last year.

"We were very pleased and supportive of that network when it launched," Costantini said. "There were dozens of Spanish-language networks, but nothing in the children's area."

Costantini, 43, is a gatekeeper in a department that helps decide what networks almost 11 million subscribers will see on their TV screens.

LESSONS LEARNED

After years toiling as a corporate lawyer, Costantini came to cable fairly recently, joining Time Warner in 1996, as the chief lieutenant of Fred Dressler, the MSO's executive vice president of programming.

"She started out being a lawyer and has really grown into one of the top negotiators in the business, someone that Fred relies on heavily," said Bill Goodwyn, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Discovery Networks U.S. "There are a lot of issues Time Warner feels strongly about. There's a lot at stake and it's a big job and she does a great job with it."

Dressler is considered one of the most astute, respected — and feared – MSO programming chiefs, so Costantini has been tutored in the cable business by one of the best.

"You'll learn more in six months [with Dressler] than you would in three years somewhere else," Goodwyn said.

Costantini's grandparents immigrated from Poland to Yonkers, N.Y., where her father made his career as a plant manager for Otis Elevator.

"We lived in a three-family house: My aunt on the top floor; my grandparents were downstairs and we were in the middle," Costantini said. "I tortured my grandfather: He thought I walked like an elephant."

At her all-girl's high school, Costantini decided she wanted to go to law school "to help poor people and change the world somehow." But while serving on the school's student council, she got a taste for politics, for wheeling and dealing at that very grass-roots level. She loved it.

LOVE OF THE DEAL

Costantini graduated from Manhattanville College, and then New York Law School in 1984. Working for two big New York firms, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Kelley, Drye & Warren, she practiced for 10 years — specializing in mergers and acquisitions. "I just got caught up in deal-making," Costantini said. "I liked corporate law."

Her firm was retained by Time Warner Cable as outside counsel to negotiate the MSO's "thousands" of retransmission-consent deals. She worked on that account, getting to know the crew over at Time Warner, which ultimately recruited her.

"When Fred and I first started to work together we were like hand in glove," Costantini said. "As I've grown into the job and he's grown more confident with me, there are some deals that he does and some deals that I do, but we work in a very collaborative fashion. I'm not out here doing deals without his input and insight. And he's not out there doing deals without bouncing ideas off me as well."

One of the things that Costantini said she's learned from Dressler was to tone down the aggressive, pit-bull-type negotiating style she had adopted as a lawyer.

"I'm a little bit more direct and in-your-face," Costantini said. "Fred is more of an elegant negotiator ... I've been able to incorporate some of his styles in with mine. Over the years, I have a little softer approach than I did. Fred always used to say to me you catch more bees with honey than vinegar."

Today, Dressler has nothing but praise for Costantini, who some predict will be his successor.

"She's one of the smartest people that we have," Dressler said. "She understands both sides of the issues. And so she is able to be creative in coming up with solutions that are satisfactory for both sides."

For the most part, Costantini has maintained a very low public profile. But last summer, during the CTAM conference in Seattle, Costantini had a coming-out party of sorts, by making a rare public appearance at a session on programming with Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner and Cox Communications Inc. chief operating officer Pat Esser. And she more than held her own.

"She did a great job at that panel," said Lindsay Gardner, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the Fox Cable Networks Group. "That should have been a tipoff to the industry that she has stature on her own, that she has her own voice in this industry."

GROWING DIVIDE

Today, both MSOs and programmers are having difficulty keeping their ambitious, difficult-to-achieve promises to Wall Street, which is a major reason why tensions between both those parties have been boiling over, according to Costantini. The interests of networks and cable operators are no longer aligned, she said, and that has created a greater strain compared with times past.

"We weren't haggling about half cents and cents, as we are now," she said. "There's a lot more thinking outside of the box that needs to be done these days, and not everybody can do that; not everybody wants to do that. Change is really hard on our side and their side, but we're all trying to find ways to reconcile our conflicting goals, and sometimes it gets acrimonious. But it's never personal."

Costantini, who spent much of last year focused on helping develop Time Warner's video-on-demand platform, lives in Connecticut with her husband and teenaged son and daughter.

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