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Forum: Programmers, Operators Must Team Up Locally

The history of cable television has been marked by thesomewhat stormy relationship between program-service providers and cable operators -- onethat mirrors the classic Hollywood love-hate liaisons of Tracy-Hepburn, Bogart-Bacall andMatthau-Lemmon.

Sometimes, relationships can be improved by making agreater effort to work with your partner in ways that show a desire to provide additionalsupport. As content providers, we recognize that this approach can pay dividends to bothparties.

We fully recognize that cable operators have invested asignificant amount of money and energy over the years. Starting with the early days ofcable, operators have committed themselves to developing a complex infrastructure, firstby wiring the country and, most recently, by adding new technology to make the overallproduct better and more accessible for subscribers.

It is equally important to note that service providers havemade substantial investments in program development, original production and marketingcampaigns.

Collectively, operators and programmers are under attackfrom outside forces that would like to tap into both of their revenue streams andsubscriber bases. Operators want and need our help, and we, as programmers, want and needtheir help.

In today's emerging digital world, I would identifyshelf space, the need to have distinguishable services and the weight of communitystewardship as some of the main challenges facing operators.

As programmers, one of the most important activities thatwe can undertake, on behalf of operators, is to add value to their channel lineups bymaking sure that our networks are legitimately distinguishable from one another and thateach, in its own way, offers informative and/or compelling programming.

In turn, this package of reasonably differentiated productshould better enable operators to provide real value to their subscribers. Bottom-line, ifviewers don't like what they're watching, they don't just change channels:They ask their local operator to replace one channel with another.

Understanding these deserved consequences, the serviceprovider must fashion a relatively unique brand that responsibly reflects its identity andmission statement. Certainly, in our mutual interests of entertaining and serving theviewer, the confusion and disruption of dropping services should be obvious to both of us.

An additional avenue that allows programmers to helpoperators create value is the opportunity provided by "localized" initiatives.Such programming contributes to the significant effort by operators to gain furtheracceptance with their subscribers.

It is for this reason that we see leading MSOs like ComcastCorp. and Tele-Communications Inc. placing such additional emphasis on local programming.

In a perfect world, such programming should serve tofurther educate the audience about issues affecting their community. Recently, forexample, we developed a cobranded window that added local flavor to the national coverageof a Miami trial.

This could also include the development of cross-productactivities for the Internet that embrace operator and programmer Web sites, as well aslocal advertising opportunities.

Many of our industry's most successful cableprogrammers have done great jobs when it comes to being good corporate citizens. Home BoxOffice is now sponsoring screenings in various cities of its Out at Work, whichfocuses on gay bashing and harassment in the workplace. And for several years, LifetimeTelevision has worked to increase the early detection of breast cancer.

Since television traditionally works best when it islocally involved, these types of campaigns provide positive community tie-ins for localsystem operators, as well as enhanced brand awareness with their subscribers.

Looking to raise the crossbar even higher, I would like topropose that operators and programmers unite for a very important cause with far-reachingramifications well beyond those related only to our industry.

With the negative aura coming out of Washington, D.C.,these days, I believe that we need a program -- and possibly an entire campaign -- thatmakes the next generation, our children, understand the fundamental good that a focusedgovernment can achieve on behalf of this country.

We owe it to citizens to find a way to foster programmingthat inspires youngsters to consider a life in the public sector.

As for operators and programmers themselves, I would submitthat in the future, we will find additional ways to work together -- we must try our best.Today's viewers live in a world with many more entertainment and information choicesthan were available to their parents and grandparents.

Together, we have to work extra hard to keep theirpatronage. Indeed, like those famous Hollywood couples, if programmers and operators putmore effort into the relationship, ours can be a marriage made in heaven, with a legacythat will make both of us justifiably proud.

Henry Schleiff is president and CEO of Courtroom TelevisionNetwork.