TW Cable exec tackles NFL Net before retirement

Featured Player: Fred Dressler

One of the big reasons that 24 million people can zero in on nightly reruns of such golden oldies as “The A-Team,” “Knight Rider,” “Simon & Simon” and “Miami Vice” is that Fred Dressler switched on the first green light.

As executive VP of programming for Time Warner Cable since 1986, Dressler has ruled as the longest-running head of programming for a major cable operator, and when he announced that he’ll retire in December, his counterparts at the other side of the bargaining table were relieved, but also a bit dismayed.

“He’s a tough negotiator who can cut your heart out, but you can’t hate him because he’s such a great guy,” says Dave Zaslav, president of NBC Universal Cable. “And you can’t challenge him because he’s so honest.”

Zaslav says he sold Dressler on taking an unproven new NBC U network called Sleuth (the home of “The A-Team” and other Universal shows from the ’80s) by pointing out that crime series are a staple of some of the most popular entertainment channels on cable, including TNT and USA. “That argument resonated with Fred,” Zaslav says.

Another rival of Dressler’s from the network side, Nicole Browning, president of affiliate sales and marketing for MTV Networks, also comments on his toughness, but adds: “When we reached an impasse, Fred would try to come up with a new negotiating path that gave us the opening we needed for a solution.”

Dressler’s last hurrah may be the battle royal he’s engaged in with the NFL Network, which has failed to engineer a TW deal after more than three years of on-again/off-again talks.

The NFL wants full clearance in basic cable at a relatively stiff monthly rate of about 70 cents a subscriber. As that rate would get passed along to TW’s customers, Dressler says all his subscribers would have to pony up for the 25% or so who care about pro football.

Since the industry credits Dressler as the exec most responsible for creating sports tiers, his solution is to stick NFL Network on a separately priced digital tier.

In that scenario, only football fanatics would get billed for the channel. The NFL Network, aspiring to mass, not niche, audiences, says: No dice.

If he can engineer a compromise with the NFL in the next two months, Dressler will exit TW at year’s end with a smile on his face.

In the past few years Dressler says contract talks with cable networks have become as convoluted as Gordian knots: Video on demand and digital-video recorders are only two of the newer platforms whose rights have to be negotiated.

Most of the standalone cable networks that cropped up during the past two decades have become absorbed into congloms, which means “I can be negotiating for 20 different channels in one deal,” he says. Contracts that “used to take months to resolve can now take years.”

Dressler says one of the banes of his existence as a dealmaker over the years was “interference by government regulators,” most notably in their mandating that, since 1993, broadcast networks can squeeze compensation out of a cable system for letting it carry their owned TV stations.

Broadcasters seized on the rule and forced operators to take cable networks created by Fox (FX), ABC (ESPN2) and NBC (America’s Talking, which morphed into MSNBC). Now, Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS, has publicly declared that when carriage contracts of the CBS O&Os come up for renewal, he’ll demand large monthly cash payments from cable operators. These demands could turn future negotiations into battlefield combat.

In retirement, Dressler, 65, will serve as a TW consultant and work on a few outside activities. “I won’t take another full-time job,” he says. “But I won’t sit on the beach, either.”

Summing up, he says, “Everyone characterized me as a hard-nosed negotiator. But I’ve got the scars to prove that the networks were just as tough.”

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