Robbins Takes Shots at Sports Networks


Washington— Cox Communications Inc. CEO Jim Robbins used his appearance at the opening session of the Cable Television Public Affairs Association annual conference here last week to condemn the rising cost of sports programming.

The conference also featured appearances by Federal Commmunications Commission member Kathleen Abernathy and National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Robert Sachs. The comments from Robbins, who in recent months has become the most vocal critic of rising programming costs among top MSOs, drew the most attention.

Robbins warned once again that Cox would drop networks if costs don't improve, and said there could be cases in which costly networks are shifted from basic cable to tiers, easing pressure on basic rates and giving subscribers the option to buy them or not.

ESPN, the most expensive national basic-cable network, fell into the former U.S. Navy gunboat officer's crosshairs.

"Only two people are making money in the sports business — that's ESPN and the players," Robbins said.

ESPN spokeswoman Rosa Gatti responded later, saying, "Cox has a very healthy business by any measure, and we believe ESPN significantly contributes to it."

Robbins also criticized Cablevision Systems Corp. and the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network for their bitter public carriage dispute. Hours after his address last Monday, YES and Cablevision reached an interim carriage agreement.

Robbins scolded YES and Cablevision for fighting their battle in the public.

"This is not going to help our industry collectively," Robbins said. Asked whether Cox would consider Cablevision's strategy of distributing expensive sports networks on a sports tier, Robbins said, "I think there is some rationale for that."

Must-carry nixed

FCC commissioner Abernathy's appearance at CTPAA's conference was highlighted by her remarks on dual must-carry. She said she opposes mandatory cable carriage of digital and analog broadcast signals during the digital-TV transition. "I have said that I find that a difficult course to pursue because I am just not convinced that that is an appropriate burden to place on the industry."

Abernathy, who serves in the agency's Republican majority, said the issue of cable carriage of multiple digital broadcast signals after the transition has not been resolved.

Broadcasters are seeking cable carriage of the entire digital bitstream, whether that's a single high-definition signal or multiple standard-definition signals. Cable operators and many programmers argue that TV stations are eligible for cable carriage of just one digital programming service.

"That's the debate that is still ongoing," Abernathy said.

Almost all of her talk was devoted to an appeal for greater cable-industry effort toward informing parents who want to police the TV-viewing habits of their children. Cable, she added, should do more to inform parents about programming choices and the availability and capability of blocking technologies.

NCTA CEO Sachs kicked off his address at the conference by praising the "several hundred" cable employees who are members of U.S. military reserve units that were called into action for the war in Iraq.

"As an industry, we are enormously proud of them, and I know I speak for everyone here in saying we look forward to the day of their safe homecoming," Sachs said.

Praise for Clarke

Sachs also lauded the efforts of former NCTA vice president of public affairs Torie Clarke, who now works as a spokesperson at the Pentagon, and former NCTA senior vice president Pam Turner, who was recently named to head congressional affairs for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

"We know Torie Clarke for her leadership in mobilizing all of cable's resources to reverse the public perception of our industry that existed in the early 1990s," Sachs said. "But the rest of the country today knows her for a straightforward, upbeat, and open approach to communications. Talk about cable career paths. Torie's a cable alum of whom we all can be proud."