Making the Right Moves

The programming landscape has changed dramatically in the past several years, with the advent of subscription video-on-demand and over-the-top players further complicating an already convoluted negotiating process.

Today’s programming executives at large, midsized and small pay TV service providers have to be schooled not only in the economics of traditional linear networks, but also in the nuances of online offerings, over-the-top, TV everywhere and video-on-demand rights.

Programming deals that a few years ago took only a few distribution professionals to hammer out now require dozens, and conversations can get just as bogged down and lengthy over the definition of “Internet” as they do over per-subscriber fees and ratings points. Terms like “stacking rights,” which didn’t exist just a few years ago, are now a regular part of the discussions.

As Mediacom Communications executive vice president of programming and human resources Italia Commisso Weinand put it, brands are becoming less important as younger viewers grow attached to individual shows and disregard the networks carrying them.

While a large contingent of television viewers still watch on the big screen at home — something the networks continue to bank as those subscribers increasingly pay the freight — the business is fragmenting and could splinter even more as time wears on.

Add to the mix the consolidation already underway in the distribution sector, spurred by Charter Communications’s $78.7 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable and Altice USA’s deals to buy Cablevision Systems and Suddenlink Communications, and the soup gets thicker. The mergers have led to a reshuffling on the distributor side of the negotiating table, with the people programmers need to know when they pitch their content changing jobs.

Content negotiations aren’t expected to get any more cordial as the business changes, but Commisso Weinand said they have gotten a little less contentious. Issues like pricing, sports costs and skinny bundles will be at the top of the list of pain points for both programmers and distributors for the foreseeable future. But Commisso Weinand is beginning to see a slight change in attitude.

“Not a lot has changed, however, the cockiness has been tempered somewhat,” Commisso Weinand said.

There have been changes, though, among many of the top content-acquisition executives at pay TV providers, so it’s a good time to take a look at who these “gatekeeper” executives are and to check in with some of them in sidebar conversations.

Spotlight on Mediacom's Italia Commisso Weinand: Tough but Fair

AT&T/DirecTV |Dan York
Chief content officer

York has come full circle with AT&T following its July 2015 purchase of DirecTV.

He first worked for AT&T in 2004 as president of content and advertising sales. He left in 2012 to take over programming negotiating duties at DirecTV as chief content officer and returned to the telco last year after it bought DirecTV in a $48.5 billion deal.

A seasoned executive who knows how both sides of the table work — prior to his first go-round with AT&T, York had served stints with InDemand and Home Box Office — York wields considerable clout as the top programming dealmaker for the largest MVPD in the country, with 26 million video customers.

AT&T has an iron in several content fires, which should make York’s days chock full of activity – it is migrating video customers off its U-Verse platform (which York helped form) onto DirecTV; DirecTV is readying an OTT service called DirecTV Now for launch by the end of the year; and AT&T has said mobile video, with its myriad and complicated programming rights issues, is a top priority in the future.

Key Lieutenants: Michele Barney, vice president of content and programming; Todd Mathers, senior vice president of content and programming; Rob Thun, senior vice president of content and programming

Comcast |Greg Rigdon
Executive vice president, content acquisition

Comcast has cut some landmark programming deals over the years — its comprehensive 10-year carriage deal with Walt Disney Co. in 2012 is largely considered the template for the industry — and Greg Rigdon has been in on many of them.

Looking forward, the content chief will have the chance to make history again, possibly, as Comcast’s programming deals with 21st Century Fox are expected to come due at the end of the year. Besides potentially laying new ground with iconic Fox cable networks like Fox News Channel, FX and FX Movies, the negotiations will also give Comcast the opportunity to revisit Fox’s YES Network regional sports channel, the home of the New York Yankees. YES has been dark to Comcast customers in the New York area since November 2015, over pricing and rights disputes. Some observers have said that Comcast has been waiting for all of its Fox deals to come due before addressing its YES challenge.

Prior to joining Comcast in 2010, Rigdon was executive vice president, programming, business development and strategy, at Charter Communications. He also previously held senior roles in programming strategy, business affairs and commerce, at AOL.

Key Lieutenants: Jennifer Gaiski, senior vice president, content acquisition, Comcast Cable; Sarah Gitchell, senior vice president/deputy general counsel, Comcast Cable; Justin Smith, senior vice president, content acquisition, Comcast Cable

Charter Communications |David Ellen
Senior executive vice president

Ellen came to Charter in July, through a portal that has been common for many company executives in the past two years: service at Cablevision Systems. As senior EVP, Ellen is in charge of corporate functions, including programming, news and sports networks, strategic policy development, regulatory compliance, human resources, communications and security. He will also oversee the legal support for those units.

Charter completed its purchases of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in May, quadrupling its subscriber base to 17.4 million customers from around 4 million. With that added heft, Charter is expected to enjoy considerably lower programming costs. Charter itself has said that about half of the expected $800 million in synergies from the merger will be the result of programming savings.

The company has tried to enjoy some of those synergies already: It is being sued by at least three programmers — Fox News Channel, Univision Communications and Showtime — that have claimed Charter’s interpretation of the merger allows it to pay lower rates until the end of the year.

Ellen has plenty of help. Charter recently beefed up the programming ranks, adding another Cablevision alumnus, EVP of programming acquisition Tom Montemagno (see below), earlier this year. Allan Singer, who served as SVP of programming for about five years, left earlier this year, citing an unwillingness to relocate from his Denver home to Charter’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters.

Ellen served as general counsel for Cablevision for several years, working closely with CEO James Dolan on all aspects of the business, before leaving shortly after the company’s purchase by Altice USA. Ellen had also led Cablevision’s successful defense of its cloud-based DVR product as well as the legal strategy supporting the rollout of in-home streaming of its cable services to IP-enabled devices.

Prior to Cablevision, Ellen was general counsel at Barry Diller’s Internet conglomerate IAC and at Eureka Broadband, a New York-based telecom company. Before that he was a special counsel at the Federal Communications Commission, working on the implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and served as a law clerk for Judges Stephen Breyer and Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg when they were on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during her time on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Charter Communications |Tom Montemagno
Executive vice president, programming acquisition

Montemagno is the latest former Cablevision executive to join the Charter fold, signing on Sept. 6 to head up overall programming negotiations and reporting to Ellen.

Montemagno spent 27 years at Cablevision, most recently as executive VP of programming, and over the past three decades has served in several other roles, including senior vice president of programming acquisition and as the operator’s lead negotiator with content companies.

At Charter, Montemagno oversees negotiations with its full range of content providers, from the major multichannel media companies and regional sports networks to local broadcasters and niche international programmers. The negotiations increasingly extend beyond traditional “linear” programming rights to include video-on-demand and out-of-home streaming rights on multiple platforms.

Dish Network |Warren Schlichting
Executive vice president of marketing, programming and media sales

A veteran advertising and media executive, Schlichting oversees the acquisition and renewal of all programming content for Dish, including national broadcast networks and cable channels, Latino content, local broadcast stations and premium services such as HBO, Showtime and Starz. Additionally, Warren oversees Dish’s national marketing efforts and Dish Media Sales, the company’s advertising-sales division.

Schlichting took over the programming negotiation reins from current chief financial officer Steve Swain, who temporarily served as programming chief after EVP of programming Dave Shull left in 2014.

Schlichting has upheld the Dish tradition of aggressive programming negotiations fostered by its founder, chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen. Dish hasn’t been afraid to let channels go dark as it tries to negotiate better rates and expanded rights with content companies.

In the past month alone, Dish brought back NFL Network and NFL Red Zone, signing a new deal Aug. 2 after the nets were dark for seven weeks, and lit up broadcaster Tribune Media’s 42 stations in 33 markets on Sept. 3 after 12 weeks of darkness. Longer term, Dish signed multiyear deals with Turner networks like CNN and Cartoon Network in November (TBS and TNT were not set to expire) after a few weeks of darkness, and renewed with 21st Century Fox’s Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network after a nearly one-month blackout in January 2015.

Prior to joining Dish in 2011, Schlichting led Comcast’s advanced advertising efforts on multiple media and ad delivery platforms including broadband, interactive television and video-on-demand. Before arriving at Comcast, he was CEO of Hiwire, a Los Angeles-based technology company that provided online ad replacement software for Clear Channel and other radio station groups. He also served in executive positions for Morgan Stanley and the William E. Simon private equity group.

Key Lieutenants: Josh Clark, vice president of programming, Dish Network; Andy LeCuyer, vice president of programming, Dish Network; Izabela Slowikowska, vice president of international programming, Dish Network; Melisa Ordonez, director of programming acquisition, Dish Network; and Ankit Bishnoi, head of content acquisition for Sling TV

Spotlight on Cox's Andrew Albert: Engineers on Board

Cox Communications |Andrew Albert
Senior vice president of programming

Albert oversees all video programming provider relationships and content acquisition, including the negotiation of program carriage agreements with major content producers such as The Walt Disney Co., Turner Broadcasting System, NBCUniversal, Viacom and Fox. He is actively involved in setting the company’s video product strategy, including the deployment of TV everywhere, video-on-demand and high-definition services, as well as the company’s multicultural programming strategy.

Albert joined Cox Communications in 1995 as director of programming and was promoted to executive director of programming in 2002. In 2003, Albert was promoted to vice president. He was promoted to his current role in 2013. Prior to joining Cox, he served as director of programming and director of budgets and financial analysis for TeleCable Corp. in Norfolk, Va.

Prior to that, Albert was in the Financial Management Program and served as a sales and marketing analyst at General Electric.

Key Lieutenants: Suzanne Fenwick, vice president, content acquisition; Mark Gathen, vice president, content acquisition; Chris Tygh, vice president, content acquisition

Altice USA |Michael Schreiber
Chief content officer

Schreiber is responsible for Altice USA’s programming- related developments, negotiations and agreements covering all content platforms and reports to co-president and chief financial officer Charles Stewart.

Prior to Altice, Schreiber served as senior vice president, content acquisition for Comcast, where he led the execution of new media and digital content deals. Prior to his role at Comcast, Schreiber worked at NBCUniversal, most recently as vice president, business development, digital distribution, where he assisted in the founding, development and launch of Hulu.

Altice USA |Alan Dannenbaum
Senior vice president, programming

A Comcast alumnus, Dannenbaum works with Schreiber on programming-related developments, negotiations and agreements across all platforms.

Dannenbaum spent more than 20 years at Comcast in various roles before forming his own business, Dannenbaum Consulting, in April 2015. He had joined Comcast in 1993 as associate general counsel. He also served as executive VP of Satellite Services Inc., from 2009 to 2014.

Spotlight on Verizon's Ben Grad: Giving the People What They Want

Verizon Fios |Ben Grad
Executive director of content strategy and acquisition

Ben Grad leads Verizon’s companywide content acquisition efforts with major content providers and sports rightsholders, and manages financial and strategic analysis for the telco’s key content-related initiatives. He is responsible for content acquisition and strategy for Fios, including developing Fios’s multiplatform content offering.

Prior to joining Verizon in 2007, Grad was head of strategy at Fuse, where he assessed programming and new business opportunities. Previously, he was a member of Time Warner’s Corporate Strategic Planning Group, where he developed and assessed new digital distribution opportunities for Time Warner divisions. He also negotiated agreements and developed strategy at eLabs, Universal Music Group’s digital group.

Key Leaders: Tricia Lynch, executive director of content strategy and acquisition; Michelle Webb, executive director of content strategy and acquisition

Mediacom Communications |Italia Commisso Weinand
Executive vice president, programming and human resources

With nearly 40 years of experience in the cable industry, Commisso Weinand served stints with Comcast, Tele-Communications Inc., Times-Mirror Cable and Time Warner Inc. before joining her brother’s cable company, Mediacom, in 1996 as VP of Operations. One of the most respected programming executives in the cable industry, she is known for a tough but fair negotiating style and has helped engineer some of the landmark deals in cable, including a 2014 Walt Disney Co. pact that gave Mediacom access to authenticated WATCH and video-on-demand products, the ABC broadcast network and cable channels like SEC Network, ESPN Goal Line and ESPN Buzzer Beater.

Key Lieutenants: Barry Paden, group vice president, programming; Joseph Appio, vice president of programming; Glenn Goldsmith, consultant; John Woods, vice president, advanced programming

National Cable Television Cooperative |Judy Meyka
Executive vice president of programming

It may cater to small operators, but the National Cable Television Cooperative represents nearly as many cable customers as the biggest of the big operators — Comcast — with its 850 members tallying about 20 million subscribers across the country. Meyka, who has served stints at large operators like Media One, AT&T Broadband and Adelphia Communications as well as programmers like iNDemand in her 23 years in the business, is the group’s chief programming negotiator.

That experience helps Meyka bring a new perspective to the organization, and in her time there she has completed deals with multiple major programming partners and secured new agreements with independent programmers and new-to-market content providers.

That can come in handy because although the co-op has negotiating heft, not every member has to sign on to every deal. NCTC members range from larger operators like Cox Communications, with about 4 million customers, to tiny family-owned operations with just a few dozen customers, all with different programming needs.

While pricing continues to be the biggest issue around negotiating time, bundling, online, TV Everywhere and mobile rights have become increasingly important aspects of negotiations for all NCTC members.

That was evident in recent deals with AMC Networks, where NCTC was able to avoid a blackout by hammering out a deal that didn’t force members to carry all six AMC channels on their most popular tiers — and got a more modest price increase.