By industry standards, the Game Show Network is one of cable's middling networks, counting about 45 million subscribers. But to Anne Droste, the net's senior vice president of affiliate relations, Game Show is a giant.
When she arrived at Game Show in 1994, few cable systems offered the channel and only a handful more had heard of it. "We had between 3 million and 5 million subscribers and no major MSO deals," says Droste, who has been head of sales and affiliate marketing since 1998.
The young Game Show Network did boast an upside, though, she says: "It had the most full programming schedule I'd ever seen. There weren't even any infomercials."
So Droste took that message, along with promises of Game Show's popular niche, and stumped for carriage. Within 12 months, she says, every major MSO had agreed to a carriage deal.
Still, these days, Game Show's distribution remains Droste's biggest challenge and main focus. The channel may have deals with most operators, but it's not offered on many basic-cable packages. "We're not necessarily on the tiers we'd like to be on."
So, after six years, she's still pitching her network to MSO execs. Consolidation means fewer operators to meet with, but Droste says her sales philosophy remains unchanged. "Only go where the business is. It's all about new subscribers" is her mantra.
Droste honed that strategy over 20 years of buying and selling programming. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 1981, she headed to Chicago, where she peddled programming to establishments in the city's tony Gold Coast neighborhood that weren't wired for cable. Her employer, TelStar, dispatched dishes to hotels and high rises, and then Droste sold the programming.
Her first cable job was in Los Angeles for SelecTV, which had acquired TelStar. Like Chicago, most of L.A. was cable-less, and SelecTV, a one-channel cable system that offered movies and boxing, was one of the city's earliest operators. She considers that her sole job on the operator side, having moved on to Showtime soon after.
In seven years with Showtime, Droste sold the channel to non-cable providers, companies like hotels and wireless providers. A two-year stint at interactive-television company News Talk TV followed. She arrived at the Game Show Network in 1996.
She says negotiating Game Show's carriage deals has sharpened her negotiating tactics. Other emerging cable networks—like Walt Disney Co.'s SoapNet or Viacom's CMT—can lean on corporate cousins to gain distribution. At Sony-owned Game Show Network, she points out, "we have no ownership with MSOs, no retransmission leverage, no sports leverage."
The weapon she does have, though, is Sony. "Our channel of distribution is Sony products," she explains. She works with operators to tie Sony products—such as phones and electronics—to promotions. "In exchange for distribution, we use some of our marketing dollars to push their other brands forward."
Droste points to a recent initiative with Cox Communications in Phoenix, where Game Show, Cox and Circuit City (touting Sony products) partnered to drive cable modems. She dispatched two staffers to Phoenix for six months to execute the promotion.
The best sounding board for such ideas, she says, is none other than operators themselves. Droste has a handful of confidants inside MSOs (she declines to name names) by whom she runs ideas.
Maybe she's looking for feedback on carriage pitch or a reaction to a new affiliate-relations campaign. "I ask them, 'Does this appeal to you? What's the upside and downside?'" she says. "Operators aren't shy about giving you their opinions on your plans."