Surviving the switch to cable sales

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Cable network sales reps find little more deliciously amusing than watching an MSO programming buyer switch sides. As the point person cutting deals with networks, an MSO programming executive spends a lot of time barring the cupboard doors from networks often reduced to begging for shelf space for some startup.

So some relish the ascendance of Turner Broadcasting Systems'Andrew Heller, who now is in the position of doing the begging. After moving from Time Warner Cable to its sister cable network division in 1998, Heller is now president of domestic distribution for all of TBS'11 U.S. cable networks, including the powerful CNN and TNT. That means he's the guy seeking carriage of weaker services like CNNfn and CNN/SI and living with the legacy of the giant rate hike that TBS Superstation had pushed through as he arrived.

For the previous eight years, Heller was assistant general counsel for Time Warner Cable, charged in large part with hammering out contracts with the myriad cable networks supplying programming to the MSO.

Bad karma can bite back. "I regret every network's phone call I didn't return in my past life," says one former MSO executive who crossed over to programming.

Heller, however, contends that the switch from buyer to seller hasn't been as awkward as ex-system executives sometimes find. "I have found the transition fairly simple. Sitting on the other side of the table for fairly long, I watched the guys who were effective at convincing us to buy the product when perhaps we didn't want to."

Just as unusual is the fact that the top salesman for the largest U.S. cable programmer has no background in sales at all. Heller is a lawyer, one who has never even been responsible for landing clients at the firms he worked for. Much of his experience is in bankruptcy.

The Brooklyn native spent part of his five years as an associate at two Manhattan law firms in bankruptcy cases, usually helping creditors collect as much as they could from failed companies. In 1985, he joined a friend at Home Box Office as an associate general counsel in charge of litigation.

It was there-not squeezing networks seeking carriage-that he earned the nickname "Chainsaw" Heller as he squeezed money from non-paying cable operators and other networks. For example, he had to chase disgraced Rev. Jim Bakker when his PTL TV evangelist operation collapsed, because HBO had leased him a transponder. He also had to sift through the financial problems of Hemdale Film Corp., in which the rights to hit movies Hoosiers and Platoon were tied up. "It was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it," Heller says.

Shortly before Time Inc. became Time Warner, Heller was tapped by Time's cable division American Television & Communications, which was relocating from Denver to New York. He moved over as associate general counsel for litigation, assured that he wouldn't do programming, which was generally considered relatively dull contract work.

Shortly after he got there, however, Heller had lunch with the cable unit's head of programming, Fred Dressler. They hit it off so well that Heller found himself working out network deals for the next eight years.

That led TBS, taken over by Time Warner in 1996, to tap him for the somewhat lawyerish job of executive vice president of technology and business affairs. Within a year, he had been promoted to chief operating officer, and, last October, when Distribution President Bill Grumbles decided to retire, Heller took over most of his duties.

One of Heller's tasks is figuring out a strategy for distributing the networks over the Internet "without cannibalizing our existing business," perhaps by making interview outtakes available for video streaming.

But his chief task is pushing Turner's networks, from startup cartoon channel Boomerang to filling in the massive gaps of the newer CNN splinters, and further developing networks whose inexpensive economics will allow them to survive on digital cable tiers.

Heller's not sweating the sales job. "A lot of people will tell you that, when I was in cable, I tried harder to find a creative way out. That's partly because, as a bankruptcy lawyer, that's what you did to keep all sides happy."