Cox Communications Inc. president and CEO Jim Robbins doesn’t pull any punches when he’s talking about topics that are close to his heart. Last month, Robbins sat down at the MSO’s Atlanta headquarters and bluntly talked about Cox’s spat with ESPN, retransmission consent, and which competitors worry him the most. Robbins spoke to Multichannel News editor at large Linda Moss the day after Cox’s parent, Cox Enterprises Inc., held a board meeting behind closed doors where CEI chairman James Kennedy unveiled plans to take the MSO private. CEI announced those plans to the public less than a week later. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
MCN: Behind the scenes, did you take a lot of heat over your stance against ESPN? My sense from the industry is there’s an opinion that: 'Let’s not air our dirty laundry. Don’t bring things like this to Washington’s attention.’
Jim ROBBINS: Let me give you a visual. [Robbins gets up and crouches behind a chair, mimicking someone cheering him on].
'Go, Robbins. Go, Robbins.’ Behind the scenes. 'Go, Robbins. But I don’t want to be seen pushing you or helping you.’
MCN: So they were supporting you privately?
ROBBINS: You bet. My objective on that thing was, very simply, we looked out ahead of ourselves, saw one great big tidal wave coming at us — called sports-programming costs — and said, we need to get this right, or we don’t have a business. So it was entirely company-focused. And the great thing for us is that everybody got in the boat.
MCN: At the company?
ROBBINS: Everybody in the company got in the boat. When ESPN went to San Diego and said, 'We want to do a community event with you’ — and don’t pick San Diego specifically, but one of our systems, let’s say. ...
The general manager said, 'We’re not going to do any events with you. You’re the bad guy. You’re trying to stick it to us. Don’t give me this, you know, all smiley, fuzzy stuff out in the field, and then come in here and tell us to bend over.’
So that helped.
And our economic terms were done before the hostile bid [for ESPN parent The Walt Disney Co.] from Comcast. So it wasn’t the Comcast bid that got the thing over the finish line at all. It was being papered at that point.
And the rest of the industry got a nice benefit — has or will — get a nice benefit from it. And if I don’t get a thank you letter from anybody, that’s fine, because we’ve all got to watch out for our own things. But I would do the same thing again, without a question.
And let me just tell you, while what we got [with the new ESPN contract] was a huge improvement, it is still out of line with inflation-type increases in any of our costs. It is still out of line.
The next issue we’re going to deal with is retransmission consent, and that’s a tough issue. And is Cox going to be out alone on it, or not? I don’t know. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do on it.
MCN: So you don’t know if you’re going to take on a hard line on that one?
ROBBINS: I’m not a hard-line guy. I’m a pretty easy guy to get along with. I have to look at what’s right and wrong for our business.
MCN: You did negotiate a good deal with Fox Sports. My understanding is that you’re done with your programming deals for a while now.
ROBBINS: I think some ugly retransmission stuff will pop up here and there. I can’t tell you specifically. But in some ways, it’s never done. But that one [retransmission consent] is just wrongheaded policy, where the government is basically making decisions on economic advantage.
And would I, as a businessman, take advantage of it if I could? Sure. And am I going to fight it if I’m being taken advantage of? You bet. In what form? I’m not trying to telegraph my punches on this at all. That’s the next one to keep your eyes on.
MCN: The National Association of Broadcasters has written a letter to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, looking to have both sides sit down and talk about digital must-carry.
ROBBINS: The assumption is that this has already been decided, and we just need to figure out how it all goes. It’s the most overarching assumption I have ever seen in my life.
MCN: That they’re going to get it?
ROBBINS: [NAB president] Eddie Fritts’s assumption, sort of in his [letter] … It’s absurd, in my judgment.
MCN: That digital must-carry is …
ROBBINS: Is a given. I mean, there is some testosterone there the size of a Mack truck.
MCN: At CTAM, Adelphia Communications Corp. chairman Bill Schleyer and Time Warner Cable chairman Glenn Britt were asked who they worry about the most, direct-broadcast satellite or the regional Bell operating companies. Who do you worry about?
ROBBINS: I worry about both of them, but for different kinds of things. We have a fabulous triple-play product, and we have the capability to take that deeper. And we have the customer-service reputation and the execution effectiveness to really do a great job against any of those competitors.
I look at DBS, in a lot of ways, as a one-trick pony, i.e. video only. But I look at [News Corp. chairman] Rupert Murdoch as a very wily competitor. I look at the phone companies as huge companies. They can sneeze and cause me to cry. I just don’t know how limber they are.
So I worry about them both, but I’m more worried about protecting and advancing and enhancing the relationship that I have with my customer through these three products — and those products if they’re enhanced.