Henry Ahn has kept a relatively low profile in the cable industry, spending most of his 25-year career behind the scenes helping to build NBCUniversal’s impressive multibillion-dollar cable portfolio.
When Scripps Networks president John Lansing was looking for an affiliate-sales chief in 2011, he called around to check with distributors about the low-key Ahn, a prospective candidate. Lansing got back glowing reports, and proceeded to hire Ahn, who was tasked with smoothing over ruffled feathers after Scripps’ rough patch of negotiations with cable operators.
Ahn, 50, executive vice president of content distribution and marketing for Scripps Networks Interactive, has impeccable credentials. He was part of the NBC cable unit executive team —then led by David Zaslav and Bridget Baker — that lobbied to place some of the Olympic Games coverage, the Peacock Network’s staple, on the company’s basic cable networks more than a decade ago. The risky gamble worked for NBC, now NBCUniversal.
While at NBC, Ahn was also instrumental in working through the legal and technical obstacles to allow Olympics content to be streamed online. Ahn was “pivotal” in that effort, according to Baker, former NBCU president of TV networks distribution.
That Olympics initiative pioneered the kind of multiplatform on-air and online strategy that is now de rigueur in cable marketing and programming.
Before joining Scripps in September 2011, Ahn held the NBCU position of executive vice president of TV networks distribution, overseeing crucial carriage deals for 16 cable networks, including USA Network, Syfy, CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo. As such, he was no stranger to sitting across the table engaging in tough negotiations with distributors.
Scripps, whose networks such as HGTV and Food Network have relatively low license fees, had been in bruising battles with distributors during the past three years as it tried to reset the rates for its channels. In 2011, Lansing was looking for an affiliate-sales chief who could mend fences and still secure increased rates. Lansing interviewed a number of candidates, and said he was impressed with Ahn’s “bridge-building” approach to negotiations.
“He takes some of the most incredible, aggressive tactics and he manages — through his personality and his sense of humor and his need not to be the biggest ego in the room — to use that his advantage,” Lansing said. “It’s almost like judo. He uses that advantage and leverages opportunity.”
Derek Chang, DirecTV’s former executive vice president of content development and strategy, negotiated deals with Ahn and described him as tough but fair.
“What I really always respected about Henry is that he listens to your point of view,” Chang said. “ We had our share of knock-down, drag-out discussions, but we were always able to keep things on track because of the relationship.”
Chang joined SNI in February, as managing director of its Asia-Pacific operations, in part after hearing Ahn’s glowing remarks about the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company.
Lansing said he got a first-hand feel for distributors’ relationships with Ahn just a few months after he started at Scripps. Ahn took Lansing to a Christmas dinner in California with AT&T, where everyone broke bread and enjoyed some wine. “And I’m thinking, these were people that wouldn’t even speak to us three months ago,” Lansing said.
To Lansing’s surprise, the AT&T affiliates handed Ahn a gift-wrapped box. The present good-naturedly ribbed Ahn about his relocation from New York to Scripps’ Southern headquarters: It contained a pair of pants in the University of Tennessee’s colors, bright orange and white. “So they basically got him a pair of gaudy, checkerboard orange-and-white pants as a way to say, ‘Enjoy your time in Knoxville,’ ” Lansing said.
Ahn’s background in cable was initially in finance, as an analyst at HBO and Comedy Central, expertise that has served him well in negotiating increasingly complex contracts, Baker said. At NBC, he held a variety of positions relating to finance — helping in the integration of acquired assets over the years — and ultimately handled affiliate sales.
Ahn recognizes that new technology can be a driver for programmers and distributors alike. By offering Olympic content online, NBC helped cable operators increase penetration for their Internet service years ago, he said.
Similarly, TV Everywhere can help cable operators prove the value of their subscription to customers, Ahn said. “It’s important for the distributors in enhancing the value proposition to consumers of what a cable subscription is. It is not about just watching television, whether it’s on VOD or a linear fashion. It is about really having that experience on mobile devices, in the home or out of the home.”
MAKING STEADY GAINS
Scripps’ networks are still underpriced and not getting their fair value in the marketplace based on their ratings, Ahn said.
Because of heightened pressures on distributors and programmers, the relationship between cable operators and networks is “very challenged” and “incredibly toxic,” Ahn said. Nonetheless, Ahn’s approach is making headway, Lansing said.
“The deals we’re getting done are better than we were getting done when we were taking a tougher stance,” Lansing said.