This spring, media titans Time Warner Inc. and The Walt Disney Co. have warred in a particularly nasty battle over retransmission consent. The man in the center of that firestorm is Fred Dressler, senior vice president of programming for Time Warner Cable.
An ex-television newsman, Dressler has a reputation as one of the toughest negotiators in the industry, putting trepidation in the hearts of programmers as they make the trip out to the MSO's waterside corporate headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to craft carriage deals.
Dressler, like most executives in positions of power, has his fans as well as his detractors. He is widely respected by network affiliate-sales chiefs for having integrity and being creative, smart, honest and, ultimately, fair. Dressler is certainly credited with doing a vigilant job protecting the interests of his MSO.
Nonetheless, there are Dressler critics who charged that he's become somewhat intransigent, unwilling to mete out reasonable license-fee increases even though costs for networks are rising, particularly as they invest more in original programming. In fact, Time Warner's contracts with a handful of programmers have expired, and they have yet to be renewed.
Dressler is not one who is afraid to show his wrath-and perhaps to make use of it as a negotiating tactic. Disney claimed that Dressler threw its representatives out of his office during a session in March-a claim Dressler denied.
Lindsay Gardner, executive vice president of affiliate sales and distribution for Fox Channels Group, recalled a heated negotiating session with Dressler.
"The great unpublished insight into Fred is that no matter how contentious the negotiation, and no matter how often he appears to lose his temper, Fred never really gets angry," Gardner said. "It's all just business, except for that time he threw a calculator at me."
The airborne calculator missed Gardner.
But ultimately, Dressler is often given one of the highest compliments a negotiator can get: He's said to be an executive who finds a way to get deals done.
Even in Time Warner's dispute with Disney over retransmission consent for its ABC Inc. TV stations, Dressler's position is that he had reached an agreement with Disney in which he agreed to carry SoapNet and to move Disney Channel to basic.
Disney officials claimed that the deal wasn't done, and that the pending pact had to be rethought once America Online Inc. announced in January that it would acquire Time Warner Inc.
"When you deal with [Dressler], you better have eaten your Wheaties," said Bill Goodwyn, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Discovery Networks U.S. "He challenges you economically and creatively. You can't just walk in and say, 'This is my business plan.' Time Warner has its own business plan. So you have to be flexible. You have to be creative on your end. You have to have your mental aptitude."
Since negotiating is a leverage game, ironically, even network executives who had good things to say about Dressler didn't want their names used when they talked about him.
"He's got integrity, but he's tough," one cable-network president said. "He's been doing this job for a long time. When you look at people in that job, you look at how creative they are. Some are just grinders, and some are more creative at doing deals. He's creative."
A second network president said of Dressler, "He operates from a position of great strength, but he's well-respected, fair. And he's honest. He'll say what he really thinks about your network-good, bad or indifferent."
Dressler is credited with working with programmers to put together affiliation contracts that may have unusual elements and compromises so that they're acceptable to both sides. So network executives have to be flexible and willing to work with Dressler, according to Goodwyn.
"It's not his way or the highway," Goodwyn said, "but you have to know what you're doing or you'll get destroyed."
Dressler, a graduate of Syracuse University, joined the cable industry in 1976, when he became assistant general manager of American Television & Communications Corp.'s Shreveport, La., cable system. He later served as president and CEO of ATC's Mile Hi Cablevision in Denver, after which he became the MSO's vice president of programming.
Prior to coming to cable, Dressler's career had been in television news. His resume includes reporting, editing and TV-production experience with ABC-TV, Courier-Life Newspapers and United Press International in New York. In Denver, Dressler was a political reporter and editorial director for KBTV, now KUSA-TV, and later the executive producer for KMGH-TV.
Now, in addition to heading programming for Time Warner Cable, Dressler also serves as chairman of pay-per-view distributor In Demand, and he is on the board of the Women's United Soccer Association, the new women's professional-soccer league.
Some programmers, who won't go on the record, have been griping that Dressler has gone beyond tough to unreasonable. In fact, Time Warner's affiliation contracts with a number of programmers-not only Disney, but also MTV Networks-have expired and haven't been renegotiated yet.
MTVN declined to comment. But when one of its carriage deals expires, an operator like Time Warner typically goes on paying the license-fee rates from the expired contracts-which will usually be lower than the rates in the new contract-until a new deal is struck, according to programming sources.
And there is not much programmers can do in the interim as negotiations go on, since they are not about to pull their networks off Time Warner just because there's no contract in place.
Dressler's answer to programmers' complaints is that in today's competitive environment, cable rates to consumers have to be held in check and, therefore, programmers just can't expect to get the kinds of license-fee increases they've won in the past.
Again, skeptics charged that Time Warner Cable has not been so penny-pinching concerning networks that are part of its corporate cousin, Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
They noted, for example, that Time Warner Cable went along with the conversion of TBS Superstation to a basic-cable network from a superstation, taking on a monthly license fee of 25 cents per subscriber-a substantial increase from TBS' prior copyright fees, although operators do get local avails now.
Dressler and TBS officials have long insisted that Turner networks don't get any breaks or preferential treatment from Time Warner Cable-an assertion Disney has disputed in its retransmission-consent battle this year. The issue also formed the core of a battle between Fox News Channel and Time Warner several years ago.
In 1996 and 1997, FNC and Time Warner got into a nasty fight as FNC tried to get carriage on the MSO's New York City system. FNC parent News Corp. filed an antitrust action, alleging that Time Warner Inc. was trying to protect its Cable News Network from competition from FNC. The matter was finally settled, and FNC did secure carriage in the Big Apple.