A skillful negotiator and nurturer of relationships, Time Warner Cable’s Fred Dressler became the archetype of the tough MSO programming exec. Along the way he vastly expanded choices for cable customers. Although he’ll be retiring at the end of the year, his influence will live on. His successor, Melinda Witmer, and programming execs at other cable operators, when sitting at the negotiating table with content providers, will, for years, continue to ask: "What would Fred do?"
Fred Dressler’s negotiating counterparts will admit to engaging in bloody battles with him, but deny that there is lingering bad blood. Network programmers now recount their toughest bouts with good humor, respect and fondness. And maybe a touch of awe.
That’s fitting tribute to Dressler, Time Warner Cable’s EVP of programming, who is retiring this month after developing a reputation as one of the industry’s most skillful negotiators of network carriage deals, and whose adversaries dubbed him a gatekeeper, the Godfather or worse.
Executives at cable networks note his significant role in advancing cable programming, and his unparalleled ability to achieve network rights agreements. They say Dressler succeeded by building relationships, always thinking ahead and being demanding yet fair. "I always could get a square deal from Fred," says Doug Holloway, president, cable investments, NBC Universal. But, he adds with a laugh, "It was often painful."
"He once threw a calculator at me," says Lindsay Gardner, president, affiliate sales and marketing, Fox Cable Networks, recalling a negotiating standoff over National Geographic Channel. But Gardner knew it was just part of Dressler’s "unique" negotiating style.
"No matter what side of the table you were on, Fred always commanded respect for his honesty, great sense of humor and love of the game," notes Rob Marcus, senior EVP, Time Warner Cable.
TV viewers have shared in the spoils of Dressler’s victories; he was instrumental in expanding programming choices for cable customers. "He was one of the first operators to recognize that programmers weren’t the enemy and the industry needed content to sell in order to move forward," says Dan Davids, president, The History Channel – USA.
Perhaps no other MSO executive below the level of CEO and president has had more influence on cable programming. His 20-year tenure as an MSO programming chief is believed to be the longest run of anyone in that position. Dressler, now 65, will be a consultant to Time Warner after his retirement on Jan. 1.
THE GREAT ANTICIPATOR
After jobs in broadcast journalism, Dressler began a 30-year cable career that spanned the proliferation of satellite-delivered networks, the advent of the 500-channel digital universe and the expansion of multiple network brands across multiple delivery platforms. During his tenure, MSOs and programming companies each consolidated into large, multifaceted corporations, making programming deals much more complex.
He railed against escalating sports network license fees, held the line against broadcasters’ retransmission consent demands and wouldn’t stand for networks that under-delivered on what they promised. Throughout it all, he has been credited with having a well-rounded understanding of where cable was headed. For instance, Dressler’s interest in technological capabilities helped advance Time Warner’s agendas for on demand, high-definition TV and interactive content.
"Fred was always great at anticipating what would happen to the business over the long term of a deal," says Matt Blank, chairman and CEO, Showtime Networks.
"No matter what the complexity of the deal or the situation, he’s never been overmatched," adds Bill Goodwyn, president of affiliate sales and marketing, Discovery Networks U.S. "Everyone who sits at the table, no matter which side they’re on, becomes smarter, including me. I just hoped it didn’t become expensive for me, too."
Debra Lee, chairman and CEO, BET Holdings, says, "Fred was always a few steps ahead of everyone in seeing what the world is going to look like."
A GREAT ACTOR AND CHAIRMAN MAO
Another key to Dressler’s success, says Lindsay Gardner, is that he made the people behind a network a high priority, sometimes higher than the network itself. In Gardner’s view, Dressler built solid relationships with programmers to the point where he could put his trust in them to provide successful networks.
In doing so, Dressler epitomizes the unique relationship shared by many cable operators and programmers. When negotiating contract deals, the two sides can engage in heated and protracted debates. But then they’ll have dinner together, play tennis (one of Dressler’s cherished sporting acitivities) and foster lifelong friendships.
So when negotiations over National Geographic Channel got testy, Dressler hurled the aforementioned calculator at Gardner, even though the two are friends. Dressler then exited the meeting room, leaving Gardner’s colleagues in shock. Gardner expected Dressler to return for lunch in the meeting room, but instead, Tina Pagano, Dressler’s assistant at the time, loaded a plate for Dressler and left.
Nonetheless, Gardner says he knew "Fred wasn’t angry. That whole thing was just an act. I sat in his office while he ate and we hammered out the rest of the deal together."
Many programmers note Dressler’s unique ability to separate business and personal relationships.
"You could yell and scream [in negotiations], and the next time he saw you he’d give you a big hug," says Debra Lee. "He was never a jerk and never went beyond the bounds of reasonableness. He expected that back in return."
Brad Samuels, EVP, affiliate sales & marketing, TV One, recalls seeing Dressler at a Cable Positive dinner during a contract negotiating period. "We happened to run into each other in the men’s room, but that didn’t stop Fred from making his position very clear on a key issue, which seemed to resonate even more given the special setting."
Networks have resorted to all manner of tactics to win over Dressler, even whimsical ones. At Oxygen Media’s company meetings, Gerry Laybourne, chairman and CEO, had employees chant Dressler’s name to send him positive vibrations about carrying Oxygen.
"Everyone chanted ‘Fred Dressler, Fred Dressler’ and we had his picture up on a screen like Chairman Mao," Laybourne says. Positive vibrations or otherwise, Time Warner added Oxygen.
ROAR LIKE A LION
Despite the tough-guy status, Dressler’s spectacled appearance and native New York-tinged wit don’t conjure up Don Vito Corleone. In the view of many, he only delivered what his job and his company demanded. Dressler himself says it was the programmers that often acted like the tough guys.
Yet Dressler’s ability to size up people, scrutinize deal points and leverage his position could be daunting, programmers say. In effect, he forced network affiliate sales and marketing teams to be on their toes.
"For the unsuspecting, it’s almost like a lion playing with its kill," Holloway says, pausing to laugh. "If you are not up for the task, you will be the kill."
David Zaslav, recently named president/CEO of Discovery Communications after serving as president of NBC Universal Cable and Domestic TV and New-Media Distribution, also uses a lion analogy. "If you crossed the line, he’d roar like a lion and scare the hell out of you."
Ultimately, Dressler wanted to make deals and get networks launched or renewed, even when the parties were unwilling. In some cases, insiders say, he was more of the good cop in negotiations, his higher-ups played the bad cops.
During talks for USA Network at Time Warner Cable’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters, a former top Time Warner executive kicked out Holloway and USA execs Kay Koplovitz and Steve Brenner and banned them from the building. It took four years to patch up the relationship and complete a deal, Holloway recalls.
"It was because of Fred’s willingness to be creative that we were able to turn things around and get a deal done," Holloway says. He credits Dressler for championing many nascent networks.
Zaslav says a primary Dressler negotiating tactic was to get programmers to tell him about the one thing that they really wanted. He’d promise to give them that one thing, and the programmers would gleefully commit to it. But, Zaslav says, "then you’d pay about five times the price for everything else when you looked at the full tab."
"I called him on this once," Zaslav says with a laugh, "and he said, ‘Well, you got the one thing you really wanted.’"
HOLD THE LINE
Dressler’s vocal stance against escalating sports network fees led to the creation of sports tiers on Time Warner systems. His retirement looms as The NFL Network and the Disney-ESPN networks reportedly are negotiating with Time Warner.
He held the line against paying broadcasters cash for retransmission consent or bowing to their excessive carriage demands for sister networks, a position that in 2000 led to the temporary drop of Walt Disney Co.’s ABC TV stations, which were replaced by an on-screen message that said, "Disney Has Taken ABC Away From You."
He demanded that he got what a contract stipulated, including so-called content covenants. When AMC switched from an advertising-free classic movie channel to an ad-supported service with a more modern skew, Time Warner threatened to terminate its network contract. AMC sued the MSO in 2003. The two sides settled eventually.
Programmers don’t expect Time Warner to lose its cost-conscious negotiating edge once Dressler retires.
His successor as top programming executive at Time Warner Cable, Melinda Witmer, who in January becomes SVP and chief programming officer, has a legal and financial background. She also has 12 years of Time Warner experience, first at HBO and then at the MSO. Dressler’s other lieutenant, Lynne Costantini, is being promoted to SVP and chief business affairs officer.
Zaslav describes Witmer as having "tremendous stamina and intellectual horsepower, [and] she’s tenacious." He adds: "She’s trained well and she’ll do well."
"I think Time Warner will continue to look at costs very carefully, because that’s the path that Fred has set," says Discovery’s Goodwyn. "They’ll continue to build on what Fred has built."
Gerry Laybourne also doesn’t foresee changes in the way Time Warner negotiates, and thinks Dressler’s legacy will endure. Laybourne says Time Warner’s mantra will be: "What would Fred do?"
FAIR PRICES FOR TIME WARNER AND ITS CUSTOMERS
Somone said recently that with Fred Dressler, every conversation starts with "no." One programmer adds to this by quoting Dressler as telling him, "What don’t you understand about ‘no’?" Such recalcitrance is neither capricious nor personal. It’s motivated by a desire to satisfy the aims and interests of Time Warner Cable and its customers. Dressler has worked hard to advance programming options for viewers while ensuring that the company got a fair deal, enabling him to survive and thrive through myriad Time Warner management changes.
Glenn Britt, president and CEO, Time Warner Cable, suggests that Dressler’s interest in fair prices goes beyond cable programming. Early in their careers, he and Dressler used to try to one-up each other by finding the cheapest places in New York to buy nice clothes below retail.
"At the time Fred was involved in our franchising efforts, but I think his interest in getting a ‘good deal’ made his later move to programming a natural," Britt quips.
Britt and Dressler now shop at the same clothing store in Connecticut. "The prices are most certainly full retail" there, Britt reports. "I guess that’s a sign that we and the cable industry have come a long way in the last twenty five years."
Fred Dressler’s Exit Interview
Last month CableWorld columnist Paul Maxwell talked with retiring Time Warner Cable EVP of programming Fred Dressler in Miami Beach at the CableFAX Leaders’ Retreat. That reflective conversation continued via telephone shortly afterward. Below are some highlights of the dialogue, reconstructed by Paul from his notes. "The gist is accurate," Paul assures us. "Honest. Just ask Fred."
At your last National Show—on [Discovery exec] Bill Goodwyn’s panel with Fox Cable’s Lindsay Gardner, Comcast’s Matt Bond and some other programmers—you offhandedly mentioned that some networks were going to lose their places on Time Warner channel lineups. Did you mean to scare some programmers who may be on the cusp?
Dressler: That’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean anyone in particular. What I meant is that as viewer habits change, some networks—looking at their own economics—are going to rethink what they are doing. Because of DVRs and the fact that more and more people are going to see what they want to see when they want to see it, there is going to be a natural attrition as these viewing habits shift.
As programming chief at the second-largest MSO, how have you managed to wield so much power as the program executive who counts?
Dressler: Think about how it came about. I was taking over programming just as the first contracts were coming up for renewal. The first wave of channels we added was driven by franchising promises. That was a great time. Going to every town in America and competing with the same people no matter where we went. We won some and we got killed in a lot battles. But I made some of my best and longest-lasting friends in those wars.
We were putting anything on. Anything. Most of it managed to make sense in the long run. But the economics [were in flux]. When ESPN launched they paid us, 10 cents a subscriber! But they came to us saying, "Uh, this won’t work, can you now pay us? Please? Pretty please?" We said, OK, but put it in the programming you put on the screen. That’s a model that has worked.
Has the model of plowing fees back into programming quality always worked?
Dressler: Well, no. Leverage has changed and shifted over the years. We’ve got retransmission consent now. Maybe not forever. And as some programmers tried to launch they even paid us again. This time they called it a bounty. And it really helped. The industry was in a real capital crunch at the time. Sometimes we’ve helped programmers; sometimes programmers have actually helped us. But a lot of people don’t remember that now.
And that changed some of the ways cable sells itself?
Dressler: Right. At first all we ever sold was "choice"—still the key. But now, sometimes, we sell specific programming. And I think we’ll do that more.
What’s next for the cable industry?
Dressler: Well, that’s the $64 billion question, isn’t it? And, I honestly don’t know. There are guys out at CableLabs working away at what, well, nobody knows. But I have to go back to what I always heard at the end of a Bill Daniels speech: "I sure don’t know what this wonderful cable business will be like, but I sure would like to come back in 10 years and see!"
You’re famous for the so-called "art of the deal." How do you do it?
Dressler: Well, it’s like Kenny Rogers. You gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
Your reputation, though, is as the Godfather.
Dressler: Ah, that’s bull. I just know what my company can do, needs to do and should do.
The Dressler File
• Graduated from Syracuse University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in radio and television.
• Started a career in journalism including working at United Press International and ABC News in New York, then continued in Denver, beginning in 1967, in all-news radio, and as a political reporter and editorial director for KBTV (now KUSA-TV), and executive news producer for KMGH-TV.
• Began in cable in 1976 as assistant general manager of American Television and Communications’ Shreveport, La., system, then rose to head most of ATC’s franchising efforts.
• Served as president and CEO for five years during the construction of Denver’s Mile Hi Cablevision.
• Named SVP of programming for Time Warner Cable in 1987 and EVP of programming in 2001.
• A founder of E! Entertainment, Florida’s Sunshine Sports Network and InDemand, where he served as chairman.
• Received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, one of many institutions and organizations that he supports.
Some Dressler Trivia:
• An adept baseball player, he had a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies.
• As a reporter for UPI, he interviewed the Beatles when they came to the United States.
• He got interested in cable upon meeting industry pioneer Bill Daniels.
• Lives in Westport, Conn., with his wife, Tricia, who has produced educational programming through EduCable LLC’s education showcase product line.
Dressler’s M.O. at the Negotiating Table
• Possessing a well-rounded understanding of operator, programmer and customer needs.
• Staying abreast of industry developments and always thinking ahead.
• Keeping personal relationships separate from business.
• Honestly, even if bluntly, advocating his company’s position.
• Being demanding yet fair.
• Knowing when to give and when to leverage.
• Working tirelessly to achieve agreement.
They Said It
It’s amazing how many executives came out of the woodwork to share their Fred-isms, now that he’s retiring.
"No matter what side of the table you were on, Fred always commanded respect for his honesty, great sense of humor and love of the game."
Rob Marcus, senior EVP, Time Warner Cable
"If you crossed the line, [Fred would] roar like a lion and scare the hell out of you."
David Zaslav, newly named president/CEO of Discovery Communications
Witmer Takes Her Place at the Bargaining Table
Incoming Time Warner Cable programming chief Melinda Witmer is ready to apply Dressler’s Rule No. 1: It’s all about leverage.
The programming community will probably not be emitting a sigh of relief when Melinda Witmer takes Fred Dressler’s chair as Time Warner Cable’s programming kingpin. Witmer has had plenty of time to learn the ropes from Dressler over the last five years, first as VP and chief counsel for programming in the operator’s law department, and then in her current role as SVP of programming. In an interview with CableWorld contributor Janet Stilson, Witmer gives an inkling of what to expect when she assumes the role of SVP and chief programming officer on Jan. 1.
What advice has Fred Dressler passed on to you since you learned he would be his successor as programming chief at Time Warner Cable?
Witmer: Fred has given me lots of advice over the years, but most recently he has encouraged me to stay positive and don’t forget to have fun, and [he has] reminded me that "you have to love the process." Fred has been an inspiration to me to raise the level of my game every day.
He has often said "it’s all about leverage," but the trick is knowing "when you have it and when you don’t," and "how and when to use it." He never loses sight that "it’s business, not personal," and that the guy across the table is "just trying to earn his paycheck, too."
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned on the job at Time Warner Cable?
Witmer: Keep your eye on the customer and their pocketbook.
The competitive landscape promises to get much tougher for cable companies, at the same time that switched digital opens up new opportunities to add a wider variety of program channels. How do those kinds of changes alter the programming strategy at Time Warner Cable?
Witmer: The good news for Time Warner Cable is that we thrive in a competitive environment and it drives our desire to innovate and offer more compelling products to our customers. For efficiency, we negotiate most of our agreements at a corporate level, but always with the input of our local operations. We hear from our operating divisions routinely about programming their customers want—or don’t care much about.
Switched digital broadcast will allow us to offer more channels. Our increased technical capacity and our desire to offer more programming choices will continue to require a balancing of the value proposition to our customers against increased costs. To remain competitive, we need to provide the right products at the right price.
How many master agreements does Time Warner Cable have now with program channels?
Witmer: Hundreds. For efficiency, we negotiate our agreements at corporate so our field operations folks are focused on running the business and serving our customers and not on negotiating deals.
As programming chief, what will be your biggest challenge?
Witmer: Offering compelling packages of products while controlling rising programming costs. The biggest threats to attaining this goal are spiraling sports costs and retransmission consent. We simply must find a viable and fair approach to offering increasing amounts of sports programming yet managing our packaging costs. The sports fan has more to watch than ever before, but we need to make sure the non-sports fan isn’t asked to foot the bill.
The rapidly changing environment is making retransmission consent negotiations more complicated than ever. At a time when there are more programming choices on the dial than ever before and broadcast network programming is not just available over the air, but on iPods and downloads and VOD, broadcast stations are seeking more value than ever before for retransmission consent. There’s an inherent disconnect between giving away your content for free to viewers with rabbit ears and iPods, while you insist on charging a premium for viewers with a cable connection.
What will be your greatest opportunity?
Witmer: I am looking forward to working with our programmers, advertisers and the creative world to expand the VOD platform, interactive TV and other technological capabilities and bring cool new products to our customers. The couch potatoes of the future may reach multitasking heights we can only dream of now, but the lure of the couch and the power of the remote are strong. Marrying their desire for multiple platform media with traditional viewing habits will be fascinating.
What’s your favorite TV show?
Witmer: I am easily entertained and a natural-born channel surfer. I do wish I had [Time Warner Cable service] Start Over in my cable system [in Scarsdale, N.Y.] though, so I could surf until I find something interesting and then start it over!
What do you look forward to the most about taking over Fred’s job?
Witmer: The most fun—and, probably, the most daunting—part of my new role is striking the right balance to make sure we remain competitive, disciplined and customer-focused. We have to both control costs and take risks if we are to provide compelling programming offerings. We also have to be disciplined enough not to leap at every idea du jour, but instead focus on how to deliver real value to consumers.