Cox taking on ESPN, Fox in press with contracts in flux

ATLANTA: Cox Communications, the country's fourth-largest cable operator, has launched a PR campaign designed to help it stanch the rising costs of sports programming.

ATLANTA: Cox Communications, the country's fourth-largest cable operator, has launched a PR campaign designed to help it stanch the rising costs of sports programming.

The campaign has brought out of the boardroom the issue of the escalating fees popular sports networks like ESPN and Fox are demanding for their very popular content.

The essence of the effort, which has unfolded in the pages of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among other outlets, as well as at public speaking engagements for CEO James Robbins, is to raise consumer awareness of a crisis that could cause the cable company to stop carrying these networks or move them to tiers that would require consumers to pay extra for them.

"Sadly, we realize, so many people only look at the retail connection," said Cox media relations director Bobby Amirshahi. "We're the ones who have that really delicate touch-point to the customer - not just the service, but the bill that comes every month. People are very quick to assume that the cable company is raising rates and gouging customers. We realize that in order to gain a better footing in our negotiations, taking our case to the public would help us."

ESPN has responded by emphasizing the value of its brand and by attempting to clear up misconceptions surrounding the price tag it puts on its networks, particularly the fact that the figure is a wholesale cost, and doesn't take into account a number of factors, including local advertising rates.

"The ESPN brand and the quality of the content helps drive many of [Cox's] other businesses," said Rosa Gatti, ESPN's SVP for communications. "It's a misnomer to say that the subscriber is paying that full wholesale cost."

Fox has been more reticent in the media.

"We won't negotiate in the press, and I'm sure we'll come to an agreement with Cox in the end," said Andrew Butcher, VP for corporate affairs and communications for News Corp, Fox Cable's parent company.

Both ESPN and Fox are now in negotiations with Cox, whose primary goal, Amirshahi said, is to get lower carriage-fee proposals from the networks.

The cost of cable has in recent years become a high-profile issue that's been taken up by Senator John McCain (R-AZ). McCain has complained about the cable industry's tendency

to increase its rates above the inflation rate. The cable industry is also facing stiff challenges from direct broadcast satellite (a.k.a. DBS) services.

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