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February 2007 Archives

Ready for the Digital Transition?

February 27, 2007 9:32 PM

Absolutely not. But come early 2009, broadcasters are required to swap their analog spectrum for digital, and that sobering news in slowly blipping up on the public’s radar screen. And they are not happy. But the ruling has merit, in part, to make more valuable spectrum available to first response emergency administrators.

But the details are now ever so slowly dribbling out to the masses about just what that might involve on their part. Today I got an unexpected phone call from a senior citizen who had just read, somewhere, about the ’09 transition. She’s an expanded basic cable subscriber with pretty old TV sets, and was infuriated with the prospect of spending $50 for a tuner so that she could keep her old TV sets.

It’s time for the heel draggers at the Federal Communications Commission, the regulatory agency supposedly in charge of the digital transition to take stock. To me, the deadline seems attainable if all the parts are in sync. But they are not. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee said heads will fly, if this important message is not soon coordinated, let alone made public. After all, consumers can ask for $40 coupons to get the converters to switch over their analog sets to digital. But do they know that? Absolutely not.

So I’m asking you all, broadcasters, cable operators and consumer electronics retailers how you are getting that message out your customers-who keep you in business?

And I’m also asking cable subscribers, who somehow find their way to my blog, if they are aware of any of these changes?

Seidlin's 15 Minutes of Fame

February 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Weeks after her mysterious death Feb. 8, Anna Nicole Smith has proven Andy Warhol wrong, for her fame is anything but fleeting. She remains very much in the news, as the battle raged in a Florida courtroom last week over who would get custody of her body for burial, estranged mother Virgie Arthur or boyfriend Howard K. Stern.

The judge ruled Thursday that Ms. Smith's 5-month-old daughter Dannielynn should decide, effectively letting Mr. Stern decide. Still not decided is who will get custody of Dannielynn, and whether the body of Ms. Smith's deceased son Daniel would be exhumed from the Bahamas -- Ms. Arthur's wish -- or remain where it is, Mr. Stern's desire.

All of this continued to unravel Wednesday morning as I sat riveted for several hours of commercial-free coverage of the proceedings in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., courtroom, where Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin presided over a hearing that seemed as out of control as Ms. Smith did during her short life. In her death she is generating far more ink than she ever got when she was alive.

Again, this is one of those news stories that simply will not go away; viewers seem riveted to the strange twists in the life of a grade-B actress. Or maybe viewers are just the victims of news producers, who know stories like this suck in nearly all of us, to a degree, and who are hyping it to the nines during the February sweeps.

How odd her life, how much odder her demise. Last week TMZ.com reported Judge Seidlin had prepared a demo and was shopping it around in hopes of getting his own televised court show. His behavior in the courtroom, making love to the cameras, certainly suggested that might be the case.

But perhaps more strange, given the big news of the day that Prime Minister Tony Blair would withdraw British troops from Iraq, was the decision by Fox News Channel and CNN Headline News to run the courtroom antics uninterrupted by commercials, with only a running crawl about what was happening on the rest of the planet.

CNN, by contrast, chose to cover all of the news, and I honestly forgot to check out what MSNBC was up to because I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on at the Smith hearing while simultaneously squinting to read the Fox News ticker at the bottom of the screen.

After all, the really bad stuff appears first on the ticker. On Fox it flew by so fast that I kept watching it over and over, seeing a reference about "terror alert elevated." I watched the crawl repeat three times, but never learned where or why or if it ever happened.

So given the new pits of television, I wonder whether Judge Seidlin will get his own TV courtroom show. I hope not. He's an engaging enough personality, a former New York City cab driver from the Bronx who worked his way through law school. But he hardly seemed Socratic, instead dragging out these proceedings, popping off one-liners like a stand-up comic from the Borscht Belt.

Legal critics have said he's deliberately dragging out the Smith hearing for his own benefit, i.e., more airtime, and that as of Wednesday it was pretty apparent how he would rule, having earlier said not everyone would get everything and that it would be wrapped up by the end of the week.

Apparently a Florida coroner had urged him to decide, saying the embalmed corpse was deteriorating and there soon would be no chance of a public viewing. Fine.

What worries me more is that this could set back proponents of cameras in the courtroom, giving the policy's detractors plenty of new reasons why cameras should not be there. And that reason is the immature behavior of 56-year-old Judge Seidlin we all witnessed on TV.

Personally, I hope Mr. Warhol is right, and that Judge Seidlin enjoys what I hope will be only 15 minutes of fleeting fame. Cameras in the courtroom are important to a democracy, and should not impede the wheels of justice. May they not impede them here.

Comcast & CBS: Next Retrans Battle

February 23, 2007 2:52 PM

CBS just scored a major victory with nine small cable operators who agreed to pay the network about 50 cents per cable subscriber to continue to carry the signal, during a retransmission consent negotiation.

Cable subscribers in those undisclosed markets should be mad as hell because cable operators will be forced to pass on that increase to them. So don’t be mad at your cable operator. Instead, give CBS chieftain Les Moonves who is at the head of this charge, an earful when you see your cable bill soar, just to see a free, over-the air broadcast network.

Soon CBS will tangle with Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest MSO with 23 million subscribers. Comcast has vowed that it will not pay cash to carry any over-the air broadcast network. But the law is on the side of CBS here. I predict Comcast will ask for a 30-day extension, in the opening salvos of the next war between broadcast nets and cable ops.

The timing is interesting, for both sides have a lot to lose. After all, the wildly popular March Madness college hoops tournament is right around the corner. CBS cannot afford to lose 23 million viewers and nor can Comcast afford to face the wrath of its subscribers either, if the MSO has to pass out rabbit ears to carry the signal.

Who will win this battle between two giant corporate egos?

MTV to Boomers: Bye for Now!

February 19, 2007 12:00 AM

Last week MTV Networks chieftain Judy McGrath announced an RIF (reduction in force) that should not have surprised anyone, given the earlier housecleaning that began in September with the firing of Viacom President and CEO Tom Freston, her boss at MTV's parent company. Soon after that execution, three other top executives got the heave-ho. And now we're looking at another 250 employees who also didn't make the cut.

But some will come back in different roles-like "Hi, bye, do come back"-as independent contractors. The reorg at MTV comes only a week after a restructuring at Discovery Networks. At other companies the party line is that the restructuring will allow them to become more deft at growing Internet revenues.

My take: Get rid of the high-priced baby boomers running the show. After all, there is a pattern here: Lop off a vital limb-the top dogs at these media companies-and then cut deeper by eliminating executive VPs and senior VPs. That's what we have witnessed to date.

Yes, it's true: All of the major media companies are undergoing seismic changes, admitting they have not yet found the Holy Grail in monetizing their online broadband strategies. "So far there is very little growth online, even at major media companies investing in the Internet," said Korn/Ferry International senior client partner Bill Simon.

He heads up executive recruitment in the TV space for that search firm and says that his assignments have changed dramatically over the past 18 months. Companies are desperately looking for executives who are entrepreneurial (my translation: younger and cheaper) to find solutions to monetize the Internet. Just a year ago, most of Korn/Ferry's searches were for placing executives at traditional, linear content companies. Not so today.

So are TV content providers really botching it up that badly online? You would think so, according to all the bad ink of late. Not so fast, says The New York Times' chief futurist (great title, a wonderful human being and my new best friend) Michael Rogers. He actually thinks, as he said in a phoner last week, that TV has learned a lot about prior snafus on the Internet from the newspaper and music industries. Google this guy. You'll learn a lot.

So what's really at the root of all of these reorgs? Well, whatever it is, it's just the beginning, according to Ann Carlsen, founder and CEO of Carlsen Resources, an executive search firm based in Grand Junction, Colo. She'll tell you, based on her vast client base, that this day of reckoning has been "a long time coming." In some respects, as always, it's about sucking up to Wall Street with short-term quarterly gains.

But it's not just the Internet. It's about the bulk of the population, the baby boomers who fill high-ticket jobs. "It's hard to find people to fill Internet positions. The younger people have 20 percent of the skill set of the boomers," but the boomers are being ushered to the door, or leaping for it, she said.

And no surprise here, some of them get fired only to get rehired as independent contractors to do a specific project, minus the health benefits, which are a huge cost to corporations.

She said many of the let-go middle and senior managers will come back as independent contractors. And that's because they have institutional knowledge. But corporate America is only willing to pay so much for that knowledge and the relationships between them and their customers.

"Companies just don't want the overhead anymore. I've talked to 60 or more people in the past week who have been displaced, and told them to think of Darwin: Adapt or die," Ms. Carlsen said.

Meanwhile, Michael Levine, president of Michael Levine Search Consultants, a New York-based executive search firm, has some good advice: "Things don't die, they go digital." He points to Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick at NBCU, who inherited the Trio cable network and has just reincarnated it as an online-only destination.

And the fate of the fading baby boomers? Mr. Levine's advice is, "Be ready for your second or third chapters." He thinks those chapters exist. And so do I.

Belated Valentine’s Day to NBCU’s Doug Holloway

February 15, 2007 1:25 PM

Wow! Just got my paws on the list of the “Top 10 Most Powerful Blacks in Hollywood,” to be published in the March issue of Black Enterprise which hits the news stands Feb. 21. Coming in at number seven is Douglas V. Holloway, President, Cable Investments, NBC Universal Cable.

He’s certainly keeping good company here. At the top of the list, no surprise is Oprah Winfrey, followed by Richard Parsons, Time Warner Inc’s chairman & CEO. Elsewhere on the list, also no surprise here, are household names like Magic Johnson, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Tyra Banks.

So glad to see Holloway, who I’ve known for eons, make the cut. So let’s congratulate our friend for his well deserved award by sharing our favorite “Douglas” stories. I have many, but my most recent is a breakfast date at the Princeton Club that went amuck that brutally frigid Monday after the Super Bowl.

What few people know about Holloway is that family comes before anything. His son had taken ill that morning, and being the great father that he is, he rushed him to the doctor, totally forgetting about me. He called later that morning expressing profuse apologies. But it was OK, we caught up later. I admire how he has always been there to help me understand the never dull cable business.

So congrats to our pal and let’s hear some other tales about a guy who takes the time and enjoys mentoring one and all.

Heacock, First Big Casualty in MTV Reorg

February 13, 2007 8:03 PM

Just got off the phone with Jessica Heacock, MTV’s executive VP of affiliate ad sales at MTV Networks, who was among the first of a total of 250 employees who either got a pink slip or will get one this week.

Didn’t expect to find her answering her phone, tonight. But there she was. She’s also this year’s chair of Women in Cable & Telecommunications and will continue in that role. The group convenes in New York in early March, and she will be there, presiding.

Heacock has an interesting pedigree, and that’s perhaps why she seemed so upbeat about her personal bad news today, and her future. She’s been a fixture at MTV circa 2001, coming from Cox Communications, in a similar role, marketing. Earlier, God bless this woman, she endured life under Charlie Ergen (the penny pincher) at Echostar’s Dish TV, also in marketing.

So my burning question to all is this: Are mid-level managers, in their mid 40’s, heaven forbid older, male or female, being squeezed out of corporate America to make way for the next generation? And how will the rich trove of television practices, they all have stored in their brains, be passed on to the 20-30 somethings who all think they know everything? Talk to me.

Why Is Zaslav at Discovery?

February 12, 2007 12:00 AM

Last week Discovery Communications' new president and CEO David Zaslav announced a sweeping reorganization for its wide array of 17 cable networks. His goal is to create "a leaner culture," corporate-speak for headcount reduction.

In an interview, he acknowledged that many cable content providers, not just Discovery, had lost focus on core brands in their quest for growth by creating a spate of niche networks. That was circa 1995, when digital technology created bandwith opportunities for cable programmers to expand existing brands by launching spinoff channels.

It was a land grab, the perfect stage to parlay carriage of newer and weaker networks in exchange for sweet carriage deals for strong channels like Discovery. But today, the chickens have come home to roost. Many of the new niche networks had no reason to exist. Viewers' interests were not given much thought, he said. And every cable network did it back then.

"But the audience lashed back and told us all that brands matter," Mr. Zaslov said, perhaps alluding to the mediocre ratings that many of the spinoff channels, not just his, have garnered to date. The creation of so many niche networks, I would say, left the Discovery Channel resting on its laurels, leading to a ratings decline.

The sweeping reorg-leaving several longtime Discovery executives in the dust-shocked some industry observers who had not expected him to move so quickly. After all, Mr. Zaslav was hired just last November to succeed longtime Discovery veteran Judith McHale. Although he didn't officially join Discovery until January, he said that he had spent the interim six weeks on "a self-imposed listening tour," talking with many Discovery executives and employees about what works and what doesn't.

So bye-bye to Billy Campbell, who was the company's president, and to Dawn McCall, who led the company's still wildly successful international operations. Also departing is Animal Planet General Manager Maureen Smith. Another casualty is Pandit Wright, who headed up human resources for 12 years. Separately, The Learning Channel President David Abraham resigned to take a new gig elsewhere.

Five network executive VP/general managers have been promoted to president/general managers, all directly reporting to Mr. Zaslav. In addition, Bill Goodwyn, who heads up affiliate sales, and Joe Abruzzese, who heads ad sales, will also report to him. Ms. Wright's successor, Adria Alpert-Romm, also will have direct access to Mr. Zaslav. Love these org charts, don't you?

Anyhow, Ms. Alpert-Romm is Mr. Zaslav's hand-picked hire from NBC TV Entertainment and News, and she's no stranger to cable. She earlier worked in human resources at both CNBC and MSNBC and later helped Mr. Zaslav with the integration of USA, Sci Fi Channel and Bravo into NBC Universal.

Meanwhile, another new face in the sandbox is Greg Ricca, formerly of MTV International, who replaces Ms. McCall. Other searches are under way to find heads for Discovery's newly created emerging networks operation and new business development.

My read? For now, Mr. Zaslav is going after the low-hanging fruit and plans to take other core brands, namely Discovery Science, abroad. Discovery and Animal Planet are wildy hot offshore. No-brainer there.

There are two other new factors at Discovery: hired consultants, who probably have the folks at headquarters sweating bricks. Tom Wolzein, who once ran the media practice for Sanford C. Bernstein, will help define growth strategies in new media platforms. And then there's Joel Berman, who was president of wordwide television distribution for Paramount Pictures and CBS/Paramount Television.

"We need to change from a cable company to a media company," Mr. Zaslav said, stressing that Discovery owns a great deal of its programming and should be getting more bang from its programming buck by repurposing or syndicating its content to other outlets. That's why Mr. Berman is there.

And one day we will learn exactly why Mr. Zaslav is there. I smell a sale, a public offering and/or a change in ownership. How about you?

Anna Nicole Smith's Death: Shows to Follow

February 8, 2007 8:40 PM

Well, it’s been all over the news tonight that Anna Nicole Smith collapsed and died in a Florida casino at age 39. How sad, but fitting. Already, cable networks are readying the specials. Here’s the first I know about: A&E Networks’ owned Biography Channel, of all venues, is producing “Biography Remembers: Anna Nicole Smith.” It airs Feb. 10 (8 p.m. EST) on that channel. God, she’s not exactly in the same league of a leader, like JFK, special. But that’s TV today.

Oddly enough Anna Nicole was an icon of cable television and porn mags. She was the Playmate of the Year in 1993. She subsequently married some old geezer in Texas and got the Supreme Court to help her settle the estate, which she won. I guess in some respect, she was an idol to many women. She beat the system.

Then just recently her son died, mysterious circumstances, just months ago. Earlier she had bombed on cable network E’s “TheAnna Nicole Show,” with allegations flying that she was drugged, drunk or both. I kinda liked the show. I thought she was just out there and being herself. And personally, I like people who seem to be comfortable in their own skins. But now, I guess, she was not, given her early end.

In her passing, people are already comparing her to Marilyn Monroe. That’s a stretch. So are you going to watch this stuff? I think I’ll take a pass. Let’s talk.

Going to the Dawgs

February 8, 2007 4:46 PM

Forget about the Super Bowl. It’s over. Now the most hotly contested game, the annual Westminster Kennel Club airs on USA Network, Feb.12-13 (8 p.m to 11 p.m EST) and I’ll be doggedly glued to the TV.

As the owner of two Labrador Retrievers, it’s frustrating that the breed seldom—well actually never—even makes it to Best of Breed. Instead some exotic creature that doesn’t even look like a dog wins the big prize. But the event is appointment TV for many of us. So much so, that “24” will get relegated to the back burner, pre-recorded for later viewing. Sorry Jack Bauer, you’re not man’s best friend.

And special thanks to The Wall Street Journal for reminding me of the dates in a piece that ran today. For whatever reasons, USA is not promoting the program as aggressively as it did in the past when it treated cable operators to dinner and later to front row seats and a behind-the scenes look at the woofers and their neurotic owners.

So consider this my public service to you, an alert you that you too might have a tough call to make: Which show to pre-record or watch in real time? So are you going to be among the 4 million viewers who faithfully watch dogs in action?

If not, do. It’s surprisingly great water-cooler talk at the office, even among cat owners. Woof.

TV's New Battle of the Bulge

February 5, 2007 12:00 AM

It's no coincidence that McDonald's, the nation's largest fast fooder and one of the country's top TV advertisers, recently got a spate of glowing ink just as the Federal Communications Commission announced it would form a task force to examine the role of media and advertising on childhood obesity.

At the time that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, along with now presidential contender Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) made their joint announcement about looking into the media's effect on that very real problem, the Associated Press reported that McDonald's would remove trans fats from its restaurants.

McDonald's was among the last fast fooders to agree (some say reluctantly) to drop trans fats, largely because New York City banned it in all restaurants, effective this July.

Clearly, McDonald's public relations pros have been in overdrive, spreading the pixie dust at large and influential news outlets. For example, BusinessWeek gave McDonald's an early valentine with its glowing cover story on how the company's performance is "sizzling." And it is: 24 quarters of consecutive growth is not shabby.

At about the same time, the Wall Street Journal weighed in with a most positive piece that featured McDonald's director of culinary innovation, Dan Coudreaut, who-get a load of this-trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in four-starred outfits like the Four Seasons in Dallas. He's also the creative force behind McDonald's wildly popular-but not necessarily healthy-snack wraps, a factor in the company's strong growth.

That's my prelude to say that I see absolutely no need for the FCC to stick its nose into the issue of childhood obesity. There are bigger issues looming ahead for the regulatory agency that is on the defensive from all sides, facing opponents and proponents on issues including net neutrality, cross-ownership and digital must-carry. It's a plateful of communications issues, all tangled like a pile of spaghetti, that the agency was created to solve in the first place.

Also, let's not forget that there are already other organizations that are working hard (and have been since 2003) on the kid-pudge issue, namely the Ad Council. That New York-based non-profit organization, headed by Peggy Conlon, has already made great strides on this front by finding ways for programmers and advertisers to be a solution rather than the problem. And Ms. Conlon's team remains true to the cause.

The companies, advertisers and programmers are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. Believe me, a book like Eric Schlosser's riveting and eye-opening "Fast Food Nation," which had McDonald's in its crosshairs, is a far more powerful force than anything this particular FCC can ever concoct.

It's time to give programmers and TV advertisers some credit here about being sensitive-and if not proactive at least reactive-in recognizing the roles they play in influencing children's consumption habits. I think they get the message. Just last week, the Ad Council, partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced a new campaign that would feature Shrek as a spokesman for healthy living.

McDonald's two years ago forged a promotional deal with DreamWorks Animation, which is releasing "Shrek 3" this spring. In several published reports, McDonald's has said the company would use Shrek to tout its healthier menu items like Apple Dippers (whatever they are; I don't know or care). I just like what I'm seeing from programmers and advertisers, trying to do the right thing when obviously parents cannot or will not in terms of feeding their own kids.

What I don't like is that this particular FCC under Chairman Martin seems to be partial to the lobbying interests of telephone companies seeking entry into the video space. Fortunately, he is under scrutiny of the new Democratic Congress.

And, what I don't like one bit is that McDonald's French fries will never taste the same, being cooked in canola oil instead of trans fats. But like many kids who have parents who don't lay down the law on healthy living, I, too, live with an enabler: My husband, who loves those fries as well.