Programmers Mourn Death of Tough Gatekeeper Dressler

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The cable industry Wednesday was reacting to the death of a second legendary figure in recent months, with the Christmas Eve passing of former Time Warner Cable programming executive Fred Dressler.

“The gatekeeper arriving at the pearly gates: It’s really so sad,” said former GSN president Rich Cronin, who was among the veteran cable-network officials lamenting Dressler’s passing from pancreatic cancer at age 66.


Although Dressler was known as a tough negotiator, he still managed to win the respect of a number of cable-network officials who sometimes did battle with him, but still respected him and even remained friends with him.


Jeff Shell, president of Comcast Programming Group and former Fox Cable Networks president, had a long history with Dressler, professionally and personally, calling him both a friend and a mentor.


“Fred cared about his family, his friends, and Time Warner....in that order,” Shell said.  “He adored his grandkids and I think it's a blessing that he fit in a trip to Disneyworld before he passed.  I miss him already…The fact that he's gone is incredibly unfair. He was just starting the next phase of his life and he had a lot he wanted to do.”

Shell also recalled Dressler’s sense of humor.

“I personally looked forward to spending time with him in Charleston, a place that he and Maggie Belleville taught me to love,” Shell said. “When I was thinking about buying a house there, Fred happened to be down in Charleston and I asked him to go look at the house for me. An hour or so later I got a call from him on his cell...He said, ‘The house looks great but it has a major problem, no outside bathroom.’  Confused, I asked why I needed an outside bathroom.  He replied: ‘Not you, me.  I need a place to go to the restroom when I park at your house to go to the beach.’ ”

Professionally, Shell also said that Dressler offered him some sound advice.


“He taught me a great deal,” Shell said. “Fred taught me the value of honor and relationships....people say that he was a tough negotiator but I personally found him to be fair and principled. The thing I learned most from him professionally is that each negotiation is a part of a larger negotiation.  If your counterpart desperately needs something today, give it to them even if you get nothing in return...chances are you'll be the one in need down the road.”

TV One executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing also admired Dressler. 


“To me, Fred was the ultimate pro and a great guy,” said Samuels. “He made us all better at what we do and I learned a lot from him. He played huge role in building our industry and he’ll certainly be missed.”

 Henry Schleiff, president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings, parent of Hallmark Channel, noted in a statement: “Fred Dressler was one of the leading statesmen of the cable industry and while we will miss his future contributions, we have the benefit of his legacy in the growth and success that he brought to all those who had the good fortune to work with him. On behalf of the Crown Media board of directors, we extend our most heartfelt condolences to Fred’s family, and hope that they find some consolation in the knowledge that his many friends and colleagues share with them in their loss.” 

“Fred was beloved by all because he possessed the core character traits that we all strive to have as human beings. He was honest, incredibly intelligent, humble, generous, kind, creative, skillful, and had a great sense of humor. It is rare to find an individual that inspires so many people in so many ways,” said Bill Goodwyn, president of domestic distribution and Enterprises for Discovery Communications.


“We all admired Fred for the incredible talent he demonstrated in his profession [we all strive for the same kind of excellence], but the true gift he left us with was the manner in which we go about our lives,” Goodwyn said. “Every day and moment provides us an opportunity to do things right; with integrity, courage, honesty and fairness.  In the past few months,  he defined the meaning of courage in his fight against cancer.  We have lost a great friend, a great mentor and a truly incredible human being.”

Dressler’s death came at the heels of the Oct. 10 passing of former Cox Communications CEO Jim Robbins, who died at age 65 of cancer.

As executive vice president of programming for Time Warner, Dressler was the “gatekeeper” who would negotiate carriage deals with programmers, and he earned a reputation as a hard bargainer. But many veteran network affiliate-sales chiefs still managed to respect him, despite his tough ways.

Lindsay Gardner, former president of affiliate sales and marketing for Fox Cable Networks, knew Dressler for nearly 20 years and considered him a mentor.

“In the course of just my dealings with Fred, I probably did dozens of major deals, and a few of them had real conflict,” said Gardner, who is now director of global media development for MediaTech Capital Partners.

“Among the ironies about Fred is that because of his power and his intellect, people perceived him as being inflexible, and sort of the Dr. No,” Gardner said. “But in truth, he was probably the most flexible of anyone doing negotiations. People said Fred said no. In actuality, Fred is the guy who knew 10 different ways to say yes. You just had to hear it and pick up on it.”

Cronin said it was a testament to Dressler that he counted many friends among cable-network officials, even though they often at times had an adversarial relationship. 

“It was amazing that he really had such great friendships on the network side despite the fact that his job was to be the gatekeeper,” Cronin said. “We were always trying to get the most distribution at the highest license fees and he was always trying to push everybody up to tiers and have the lowest or no license fees. And despite all that, we stayed friends.”

Cronin thinks that’s because Dressler was a straight shot who didn’t play games.

“There were some MSO negotiators who would come in and threaten to drop you everywhere, or they would say, ‘Your network’s horrible,’” Cronin said.

“And you knew it was a game and they were playing this game,” he added. “Fred didn’t do that. He was always very straightforward and honest and said, ‘Here’s Time Warner’s point of view on it, here’s what we think is fair, and you may not agree.’ And then if we had to go to war ever, which everyone at one point or another everyone went to war with Fred … he always would say, ‘You do what you have to do.’”


ESPN executive vice president of sales and marketing Sean Bratches, who negotiated contracts with Dressler for 20 years, recalled trying to close a key deal with Time Warner in 2000, when ESPN parent, The Walt Disney Co., was in the midst of a bitter retransmission-consent battle with the cable company.

Dressler was living in an apartment at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, and didn’t want to disturb his wife, so he made Bratches stand outside on the street for eight hours while they went back and forth with counterproposals, via cell phones and faxes that Dressler brought out.

 “At 3 o’clock in the morning we signed the deal,” Bratches said. “From 6 p.m. to 3 in the morning, I was standing on 54th Street outside of the MOMA tower while Dressler was inside. To the last time I saw him, we always laughed about that. But we got the deal done.”

Bratches has other war stories.

“You always knew with Fred when you were starting to get close to the end, was when he kicked you out of his office at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Bratches said. “We would always get kicked out, because things were coming to a boiling point. You put your game face on, but while you were walking to your car in the empty parking lot, you’d look at your [colleague] and you’d be, ‘We’re getting close.’”   

But ultimately, Bratches said Dressler was a shrewd negotiator.

“Fred did an excellent job in understanding who had the leverage at any given time,” he said. “And if it was Fred, he’d press very hard to get his way. But if it was me or ESPN, he would understand and appreciate that, and get the deal done that we wanted to get done.”


Dressler has been doing consulting since his retirement at the end of 2006 -- which was capped by three retirement parties -- and was enjoying it, according to Cronin.

“I had talked to Fred a few weeks before he was diagnosed, and he was so happy with his new semi-retirement consultant lifestyle,” Cronin said. “He really loved it. It is so sad the guy got struck down by cancer so shortly after he retired.”

Editor’s note: to post remembrances about Dressler, click here or email Steve Donohue (sdonohue@reedbusiness.com).

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