Americast slimming

Telco-Disney program venture axes 14 execs

NEW YORK — Americast, the $100-million-a-year television venture set in motion early in 1996 by Disney and four phone companies, has eliminated its programming and marketing departments.

“We’re going to end up playing a more strategic and supervisory role for our partners than doing hands-on programming and packaging,” said Steve Weiswasser, CEO of the L.A.-based Americast.

Of the 14 execs whose jobs have disappeared, the one with the highest-visibility is senior VP of programming Judy Girard, who came on board a year ago after serving as senior veep of programming and production at the Lifetime network. Also leaving is VP of marketing Robert Rene .

Weiswasser said that this downsizing doesn’t mean that Americast will follow the pattern of Tele-TV, the other, older Baby Bell programming venture (it started in 1994), which last April cut back its operations drastically, phasing out 100 people.

“Tele-TV didn’t have a content partner like Disney, which is giving us full support,” says Weiswasser, who adds that Americast might drop another dozen people in such areas as finance and legal affairs, slimming the overall staff to about 80 employees.

More inhouse marketing

An Americast spokeswoman says much of the programming and marketing that it took care of will shift over to Disney’s Televentures division. She adds that Americast’s five other partners — SBC, Ameritech, Bell South, the GTE Corp. and Southern New England Telecommunications — will also build up their in-house programming and marketing.

The Chicago-based Ameritech is the most active of the Americast partners in offering subscribers an alternative to their existing cable system. An Ameritech spokesman says the company has built competing cable systems in 29 cities, with 18 more overbuilds on the drawing board, all of them located in three states: Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

One of the ways Ameritech is luring cable subscribers, the spokesman says, is by giving networks such as the Disney Channel, the Golf Channel and regional sports webs to subscribers as part of the basic tier of services, unlike many cable operators, which charge extra monthly fees for these channels.

Weiswasser says another strategy is for Americast’s Baby Bell partners to start producing more local news, sports and info programming, which would be exclusive to the telco that’s trying to take subscribers away from competing cable systems.

Hal Vogel, a media analyst with Cowen & Co., says he’s skeptical, however. “Ever since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” he says, “the Baby Bells have put a lot of energy and resources into fighting off telephone competition in their local markets, and in charging after the long-distance phone companies.”

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