Right under our noses something historic is dying; a dynamic that dates back to the dawn of cable programming. I cut my teeth on the programming side of cable, specifically affiliate marketing. I was one of thousands whose job it was to build relationships with MSOs-to communicate with them, to listen to their concerns and suggestions, to prod them, coddle them and help them build their business through branded marketing campaigns. And while the ultimate goal may have been to get them to carry more networks on more systems, a higher good was achieved in the process. We all got stronger. Being an affiliate rep was all-consuming and meant being on the road (and away from family) for days on end. It was a mind-numbing succession of non-descript airports, rental cars, and hotel rooms. For every mile of interstate, there were two miles of back roads. And God help you if you didn’t show up with T-shirts. But while the travel was tough, the rewards were incredible. In a very real way, as an affiliate marketer I helped make the country (and the industry) seem just a bit smaller. I was the critical link between my company and the marketplace, and often helped ideas from affiliates become successful programming or packaging executions. Look, this industry’s explosion was fueled by programming. And since such content was distributed by people who willingly drank the Kool Aid, gave up any semblance of a normal work routine, and dedicated their lives to schlepping cable programming, it’s not a stretch to say this industry rode to success on the shoulders of its affiliate teams. Which is why I get so depressed at the demise of the affiliate rep/operator relationship – at least the one that used to be. Reps up and down the food chain are being axed by the bushel full. And more and more, content decisions are being made, not at the system level, but at the corporate office. Today, it’s less about what any single market demands and more about how much the company is willing to pay. It’s less about great ideas and more about great deals. But remember, consumers don’t watch deals. They watch programs. You know what it’s like to pull off any interstate-be it in Alabama or Minnesota – and see the same homogenous collection of gas stations, hotels and burger joints? That’s what’s happening to cable lineups. This crystallized for me last week when Comcast explained to analysts that programming costs for the fourth quarter will be lower than original projections. But then on the same call Brian Roberts said second quarter brought about a greater loss of customers than had been projected. Anyone believe those two facts aren’t related? Have programming costs skyrocketed? Sure. And should MSOs keep them as low as possible? Absolutely. But ten years ago, if anyone had wagered that cable would one day dominate the Emmys, you would have mortgaged the house for a piece of that action. Again, anyone not see the connection between programming dollars, awards and subscriber counts? Keep in mind, this industry was built on ideas. And MSOs got where they did, not because of great deal-making, but great original programming and ground-breaking marketing. As their subscriber counts continue to dwindle, lost to DBS, and with the gene pool for new ideas reduced to a few corner offices in a handful of big cities, maybe its time for MSOs and programmers to go back to the future. Symonds says, maybe it’s time we unleash a new breed of young, hungry affiliate reps and let them tells us what America really wants. Curtis Symonds can be reached at curtissymonds@yahoo.com.

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