Altice CEO Patrick Drahi is already talking about the cuts he intends to make at Cablevision the company he just sealed the deal to acquire last week. Making cutbacks to companies he acquires has been Drahi's M.O. and he certainly sounds like he won't stop now, especially after publicly decrying the fact that more than 300 people at Cablevision currently make at least $300,000 per year.
I've been a member of Cablevision's target geographical, economic, and demographic target audience for most of my life. At times, I've even been a customer. So let me dispense with the pleasantries and get right into the best things Drahi and his team could do to cut costs and get people like me to consider patronizing Cablevision again. The key to each of these suggestions is to achieve improved and updated services even while cutting the costs.
1) Take News 12 off the air and put it all online
The dominant "life form" in Cablevision's service areas is the automobile, with the commuter train a close second. In other words, suburbanites in the Northeast spend a major part of our lives getting to and from work and our daily concerns are so intertwined with our commuting experience that it often clouds most other things out. Do people who spend sometimes 20 hours a week just getting to and from work sound like the kind of people who will make time to sit in front of their TV's at home to watch a local newscast? Of course not. But they are people who are desperate for short and frequent updates on traffic/transit conditions, weather, and the most vital headlines. And that's perfect for the mobile Internet. Checking a traditional News 12 TV broadcast on the way to work or at work is mostly impossible. But an enhanced website that suburban commuters can check 2-3 times a day or more just for traffic and weather updates is perfect. For those Cablevision customers who drive and can't safely check websites, an audio streaming News 12 newscast that makes traffic and commuting news the top story all the time would be an instant and serious competitor to the traditional news and talk radio stations available now.
I'm sure Cablevision's current staff will insist that it already provides this service online and with mobile apps, but the online and mobile part of the News 12 product simply isn't first rate. Shuttering the six or seven studios that currently, and expensively, send out traditional TV news broadcasts will provide more than enough savings to boost the online product very quickly. Even a top-of-line upgrade for the News 12 websites, apps, and streaming services won't cut very deeply into the money saved by closing down the outdated TV product. We're talking pennies on the dollar here to produce a product that I and most of my fellow suburban New Yorkers are many, many times more likely to consider using than what exists now.
2) Sell Newsday
I never really bought the argument that a local newspaper would be a perfect fit providing content for a cable company. That was the line Cablevision fed its investors when it spent $650 million to buy the troubled Newsday paper in 2008, outbidding Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman by a mile, (they each only bid $580 million). Justifying that purchase has been a millstone for Cablevision and the Dolan family ever since, and that has always made expanding and improving the paper an impossibility for them. Dumping the paper now would stop the bleeding for Cablevision and also provide a bargain-hunting newspaper buyer, (someone like Warren Buffett perhaps?), to take the savings from the discount purchase and give Long Islanders a better paper as a result.
3) Restructure and repackage MSG Varsity
My last suggestion take a little more background to understand. But here goes:
Cablevision launced the MSG Varsity channel and website in 2009. The idea was to tap into the seemingly endless number of high school sports in suburban areas and grab that cumulative audience. But not only is covering high school team sports expensive, (news crews have to run all over the place to get video almost constantly), it's also the least interesting and least profitable part of the product. Yes team sports should really be about the team and not individuals, but almost all sports fans across any given region and the country don't really care how some random high school performed on game day. What they do care about is how an individual football or basketball player performed and whether he will make it one day at a big time college program or in the pros. It takes a little reverse mathematics to understand the appeal of the college recruiting mania. Perhaps you've seen those chain emails or Facebook memes that show that only about 250 of the 1.1 million kids playing high school football in America this fall will go on to play in the NFL. Those statistics are accurate, and they provide great prospective and hopefully some priorities for those players and their parents. But for every one of those 1.1 million kids playing just high school football, there are a lot of family members, friends, and college program fans who want to know if he's the next Heisman Trophy winner. Tracking the much larger number of standout players at the high school level is the way to tap into that huge audience before reality sets in for the 99.92% of them who will never make it.
Extremely profitable websites like Rivals and MaxPreps figured this out years ago. MSG Varsity could inexpensively tap into that profitable recruiting mania, especially in the Northern New Jersey area it currently serves. That region has become a greater hotbed of college football and basketball recruiting than ever, and fans of major college programs from all over the country would suddenly become very interested in MSG Varsity if it cut back on the generic game results and focused only on the actual athlete prospects. A big rule for effective news broadcasting is to make sure to focus as much as possible on individual human beings or personalities and not institutions or companies. In this case, there may be no "i" in "team," but the the letter "p" in "prospect" also stands for "profits."
I have no idea whether Mr. Drahi and company are looking to make these kinds of changes to the actual content of Cablevision's products. Perhaps they just want to cut salaries and personnel and just provide the same products. But there's something to be said for doing better with less.