TCI gives subs their MTV, VH1

Backed into a corner by intense subscriber protest, Tele-Communications Inc. on Wednesday announced that it will recommend the reinstatement of both MTV and VH1 in all of the markets where TCI systems had dropped them at the end of ’96.

The capitulation came in the midst of a massive customer write-in and call-in outcry, orchestrated in large measure by the Viacom-owned networks themselves.

TCI backed down just hours before a rally/press conference in Denver with such VH1-friendly musical artists as Don Henley, John Mellencamp, Jewel and Tony Rich. VH1 had arranged the event to chide TCI for dumping the musicvideo network in Denver (where TCI is based), Boulder, and other parts of the country.

When the musical artists received word en route that TCI had flip-flopped and promised to suggest a relaunch of MTV and VH1 “as soon as possible” to their system general managers, according to TCI spokesman Mike Smith, the Denver news gathering turned into a celebration of “how democracy still works, sometimes,” Henley said Wednesday.

“This is a testament to the power of music, the power of democracy, the power of consumers,” he added. “The people have spoken and been heard. I’d like to think our coming here made a difference. But I’d just like to commend TCI for listening to the public and for taking such quick action.”

Nicole Browning, executive VP of affiliate sales and marketing for MTV Networks, said, “We had faith that TCI ultimately would be responsive to their subscribers. I support them for listening to their customers. It was the right thing to do.”

Added VH1 prexy John Sykes: “We’re not gloating. We are simply very thankful.”

TCI had dropped MTV in January in seven markets, including Des Moines and Waterloo, Iowa.; St. Charles, Mo.; Altamont Springs, Fla.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Grand Junction, Colo. About 700,000 viewers were said to be affected.

The reasons given by TCI for the drops were mostly vague references to community standards and the need to put more family-oriented fare onto the systems. However, industry sources insisted it had more to do with making money, as TCI replaced MTV with networks in which the corporation has a financial stake.

Just last Thursday, TCI agreed to reinstate MTV in Grand Junction in the wake of what TCI officials described as “thousands of letters and phone calls” protesting the drops. It made the same move with TNN and A&E after dumping them in Houston.

Woodstock indignation

VH1, meanwhile, was booted off TCI systems in 62 mostly small markets, but also in such cities as San Diego, San Jose, Denver, Hartford, Reno and Portland, Ore. In perhaps the ultimate indignity, TCI even unloaded VH1 in the legendary rock ‘n’ roll hamlet of Woodstock, N.Y. Some 2 million VH1 viewers are said to have been affected.

MTV/VH1’s Browning said the widespread protest to the drops had a “real grassroots element to it. Consumers were just really upset.”

However, neither MTV nor VH1 remained a silent observer on the sidelines.

Sources said that MTV sent workers to all the cities where that network was taken off and reportedly worked in concert with local rock radio stations to fan the protest flames.

In the case of VH1, Viacom used its VH1 Online site on the Internet to cultivate fan anger. It posted the names and phone numbers of the general manager for every TCI system that had dropped VH1 and suggested that people call their local state representatives, radio and TV stations, newspapers and city government to complain.

The site even urged disenfranchised subscribers to sign up with satcaster USSB and suggested that they visit at least one Web site whose online address ended with “tcisucks.” Full-page ads were also taken out in local newspapers in the various markets.

“I think it basically started out grassroots, and then Viacom got hold of it and very much orchestrated things,” said TCI’s Smith. “And in fact, we received very few calls from people protesting our having taken off VH1. The MTV outcry was much bigger.”

Replied Browning: “You give us too much credit if you say we inspired all of this. So much of this just started with our subscribers’ being upset.”

MTV Networks spokeswoman Carole Robinson confirmed Wednesday that discussions over the network drops were conducted “at the highest levels” of both TCI and MTV Networks.

Tete-a-tete farfetched

Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and TCI prexy and CEO John Malone are known to be bitter rivals, whose enmity has spilled into the courtroom in recent years. So sources figure it unlikely that the two sat down over white wine to hash things out.

TCI’s Smith said Tuesday that the cable giant “had offered the option to our general managers to relaunch MTV and VH1” at the earliest possible date, “and we expect that they will be restored in every market.”

It may take the better part of a month to get the networks restored, however, said Smith, since regulations require that an operator inform its customers at least 30 days in advance before changing a channel lineup.

TCI provided that advance notice in the case of the MTV and VH1 drops, but did so quietly.

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