Cable’s Constant Watchman

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By John Motavalli

Special to TelevisionWeek

Fred Dressler is back-back in the headlines that is. At this month’s cable show in Atlanta Mr. Dressler made news when he dressed-down ABC for saying it would stream programming for free.

Then for good measure, Mr. Dressler put all cable programmers on notice: If your networks don’t perform, don’t be surprised to see cable operators yank ’em.

These pronouncements made headlines because Mr. Dressler has a powerful pulpit from which to speak: the executive vice presidency of programming at Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second-largest multiple system operator.

Mr. Dressler will be celebrating his 30th anniversary in the cable business this year. Not that many people can claim to have spent three decades in the cable business, and Fred wants this reporter to know that he’s the ultimate survivor.

As we’re talking about the old days, Mr. Dressler rummages around in a drawer and pulls out a color print of the members of the E! Entertainment Television board, circa mid-1980s. Among the assembled group, all grinning madly, are such ’80s cable names as Nimrod Kovacs, Rob Stengel, Larry Namer and Ajit Dalvi. Mr. Dressler surveys the photo and asks, “How many of these guys are still in the business? Just me. It must mean I’m getting old. I’ve been fortunate, with all the consolidation in the business, that I’ve survived.”

“He’s outlasted everyone in the business,” said Trygve Myhren, laughing. Now President of Myhren Media, Mr. Myhren is the former chairman and CEO of American Television and Communications Corporation, which was the predecessor of Time Warner Cable.

Mr. Dressler’s expansive office in Stamford, Conn., is in a former IBM facility. The modern brick office building , overlooking Long Island Sound, is now Time Warner Cable’s headquarters. The building has a soaring five-story atrium of the type usually encountered in airport Hiltons. Up on the fourth floor, Mr. Dressler’s office has a phenomenal view of the water. On a clear day, one can see all the way to Oyster Bay on the Long Island coast. No wonder he says he doesn’t travel that much, preferring the view of this spectacular vista.

Running the Numbers

When asked how old is old, Mr. Dressler declines to say, instead commenting that he’s “old enough to know better.” He then added, parenthetically, “If people know your age, they then try to figure out how long you’re going to be around.”

Considering he graduated from Syracuse University in 1963, one can estimate that Mr. Dressler is in his 60s.

Whatever his age, it’s clear that Mr. Dressler is not ready to retire. In his current job, he wields more power over cable TV programming than, well, just about anyone else in the business, other than his counterparts at Comcast-and that company is more decentralized than TWC. If you are somebody of importance in cable programming, chances are you have cooled your heels in the TWC waiting room a couple of corridors from Mr. Dressler’s corner office, with CNN playing silently above you and trepidation running through your head about what kind of welcome you were likely to receive.

Mr. Dressler is so powerful, in fact, that Ken Auletta, a writer for the New Yorker, saw fit to roast him last May, in a Syracuse University forum, this way, “Many of you are here tonight to honor Fred Dressler, and there’s actually a good reason for it. The reason is fear. We’re talking about humiliating, abject fear. As the gatekeeper to 13 million cable homes, Fred decides which networks get launched. Fred decides what channel position they receive. If you want to get on TV, be nice to this cable godfather.”

Wow, the last time epithets like this were thrown around, Al Gore was calling John Malone Darth Vader. But Mr. Dressler only laughs when reminded of being likened to Vito Corleone. “My reaction was, if you take into context his entire remarks and the remarks of the entire evening, it was supposed to all be funny,” he said. “I took it in jest, and I thought it was reflective of a recognition that I happen to sit in a position with a large cable company that has a great deal of influence on how things happen in the business.”

It may be “humiliating, abject fear,” but not that many cable network honchos seem to want to talk about Mr. Dressler, at least not on the record. One such executive recalls when his network’s 2003 contract expired and he and others had to make a pilgrimage to Stamford. “There were problems in our ability to get a reasonable rate hike out of [Time Warner Cable.] He was a tough customer, no doubt about it.”

Tough, yes. But arrogant? “Did his job go to his head? Not as much as with some other people,” opined Mr. Myhren. “I don’t think Fred was ever arrogant.”

Mr. Dressler likes to remind network executives that operator fees are not a “birthright,” that in the early days of cable, ESPN actually paid a per sub fee to American Television and Communications and other operators. Indeed, he forecasts a “contraction” of existing networks as video-on-demand and DVRs make many time shifting channels obsolete, one subtle way to argue that the balance of power rests with operators.

One executive willing to talk about Mr. Dressler was Tom Southwick, executive VP at the Starz Entertainment Group in Denver. Last April Starz presented a “realignment” of its channels to Mr. Dressler, including the merging of two channels, Starz Kids and Family, and the introduction of Starz Comedy. Though Mr. Dressler is famous for his battles with Rainbow Programming, the G4 network, Spike! and other channels about content changes in their program lineups, in this case, Mr. Southwick maintained, “He was great on that. With us, he’s been a tough and very fair negotiator.”

In November 2003 AMC sued Time Warner Cable, trying to stop the MSO from terminating it on TWC systems. TWC had cited content issues in notifying AMC of its intentions, as AMC had switched from a classic movie outlet with no commercials to a more popular modern channel with spots. Not surprisingly, Rainbow and AMC had no immediate comment, though the companies eventually reconciled with TWC.

TWC has also dropped G4 from its Manhattan system (since restored) and Mr. Dressler said he sent a warning letter to Spike! about its own content changes (from the much tamer National Network).

Tough Customer

Does this mean Mr. Dressler asserts rights that others in his position don’t ask for? One who defends his role is, former Time Warner Cable Chairman Joe Collins. “If you were to ask him, he’d object to being called a gatekeeper, as do most of the folks at Time Warner Cable,” Mr. Collins said. He offered an analogy as to why Mr. Dressler and TWC in general have been so insistent on content issues and sticking to the content promised in TWC contracts. “If you made a deal with someone to supply you with a dozen eggs each morning and he showed up with a six-pack of Coke, you would not be a happy customer.” He added, “We were only asking that we be supplied with what the contract specified.”

Mr. Dressler added, “When programmers run afoul of the content clause provisions, we don’t go out of our way to sue them. But it does engender a conversation where you resolve your differences. You begin by talking. In some cases we send a letter. In every case but one in my entire career [the AMC dispute], we resolved it amicably and out of the public spotlight.”

The road to Cable godfatherdom was an interesting one for Mr. Dressler. He grew up in suburban New York, and his father wanted him to go into advertising. But an early job right out of Syracuse as a desk assistant for ABC News changed all that. Sent to Dallas the day after the 1963 Kennedy assassination, Mr. Dressler ended up writing copy for air, despite his inexperience, because a shortage of bodies on the ground forced a desperate producer to turn to him. “People were just passing out left and right, having gone without sleep, so one of the producers look
ed around, and said, ‘Can anybody write?’ I thought that I could, so I knocked out some copy over the next couple of days, and when I got back to New York, people said, ‘Hey, the kid can write.'” Mr. Dressler ended up writing for TV reporters like the late Peter Jennings, then a fledgling reporter in the New York bureau of ABC News.

A two-year stint at UPI followed his tenure at ABC. Mr. Dressler pulls a worn-looking LP record out of a drawer as we discuss UPI. It’s a record of news actualities put out by the news wire in 1966. Right there in black and white, it boasts, “Written, produced and directed by Fred Dressler.”

In 1967 Mr. Dressler got a call from a friend in Denver who was putting together the second all-news radio station (after WINS-AM, New York) in America, KBTR-Allnews Radio. “It was there I went on the air for the first time,” Mr. Dressler recalls. He was later a political reporter and editorial director for KBTV (now KUSA-TV, Denver), and also the executive news producer for KMGH-TV, Denver. In 1968 Mr. Dressler, covering Denver City Hall at the time, met the late Bill Daniels, perhaps the most celebrated of the pioneer cable operators, the Western cowboys who built the business. Mr. Daniels was then attempting to land the city’s first cable franchise, something he did not achieve. “But it began a long friendship,” Mr. Dressler recalls. Details of that meeting are still sharp in Mr. Dressler’s mind. “He takes me into his office, where there are two ping-pong tables, on which he has built a scale model of the Western third of the United States. He shows me, built with toothpicks, this microwave system he has designed to get the TV stations from Los Angeles across the Rocky Mountains into Denver. And I say to Bill, ‘Let me clue you into something. We have three broadcast networks here in Denver, and they have three in L.A., and they’re the same thing.’ And Bill says to me, ‘But the programs are going to be running at different times.’ He was thinking about time-shifting in 1968!”

Mr. Dressler turned down a job with Mr. Daniels then, saying, “Why would I do that, Bill? I’m a TV star.”

But in 1975 HBO went up on the satellite, an event that Mr. Dressler found exciting. “I called Bill and asked, ‘When do I start?'” Mr. Daniels didn’t have the right job (he wanted Mr. Dressler to run a system in Waco, Texas), but he referred Mr. Dressler to his buddy, Monte Rifkin, then running ATC, the forerunner to Time Warner Cable and one of the first companies to carry HBO. Mr. Dressler joined ATC in 1976 as assistant general manager of ATC’s system in Shreveport, La., shortly after that transferring to Fresno, Calif., and becoming a top executive in ATC’s franchising efforts. (For 30 years, every time Mr. Dressler saw Mr. Daniels, the older man would hug the younger man and whisper in his ear, “How are you doing compared to if you had stayed in broadcasting?”)

Since 1987 Mr. Dressler has been the programming honcho at TWC, during which time he was a principal in getting TWC involved in pay-per-view and in acquiring a big stake in E!

One of Mr. Dressler’s reasons for not wanting to retire now, he said, has to do with technology, that the constant movement forward of new developments keeps him interested. The Time Warner Cable Start Over Effort, launched first in Columbia, S.C., allows customers of TWC systems to start and stop regular programming, something they could do with VOD already. According to TWC, two-thirds of digital subscribers have used the product over five times each. And as was clear at the cable show a few weeks ago Mr. Dressler doesn’t’ shy away from controversy. Asked about ABC’s plan to stream its programming for free, he said, “My reaction is quizzical more than anything. [ABC is] too smart and too thoughtful to just throw something out there without thinking about the impact on distributors.” Then he said he didn’t know why cable operators would pay to carry ABC.

Sean Bratches, Disney’s affiliate guru, said the streaming “test” was “additive to the core business.”

Which set up this zinger from Mr. Dressler: “It’s only additive if cable and DBS continue to pay you” the same amount they’ve been paying.