This past Sunday, Dec. 30, was yet another gruesome night at
Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks, Cablevision’s supposed jewel, blew
another one-in epic fashion. Playing the Magic, and up by 10 with three
minutes–plus to go, Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell watched stone-faced as
the closing seconds dribbled through the floorboards. Spike Lee shook his head
at the horror of it all. Howard Stern, Chris Rock and Robert Wuhl, sitting next
to him, seemed perplexed. Throughout the sold-out Garden, boos rang out.
Somewhere out there, a stomach may have been churning, and it may
have belonged to Jim Dolan, president and chief executive of Cablevision and
chairman of Madison Square Garden. Mr. Dolan wasn’t present Sunday night-his
family’s four courtside seats underneath the Knicks basket were empty.
Wherever he was, though, it was his difficulty: Former Garden
chairman Marc Lustgarten had passed away, longtime president Dave Checketts had
been cashiered. Madison Square Garden and the Knicks were now Jimmy Dolan’s
production. And the Knicks could well be in danger of missing the playoffs for
the first time in 10 years.
The foundation of Cablevision’s empire-constructed painstakingly
by Jimmy Dolan’s father Chuck over 30 years-has been its ring of three million
wealthy cable subscribers surrounding Manhattan in Long Island, northern New
Jersey, Fairfield County in Connecticut, Westchester County, Brooklyn and the
Bronx. While Jimmy was weaned on the hard-asset side of the business-starting
out in the early 1970′s as a gofer in a Chicago Cablevision warehouse-there’s
no mistaking the fact that since becoming chief executive in 1995, Mr. Dolan
has become more closely identified with the flashy Cablevision software: the
Knicks, the Rangers, the Radio City Music Hall and its programmer, Rainbow Media
Holdings-home of Bravo, American Movie Classics and the Independent Film
Indeed, on Wall Street these days, the buzz is growing among
traders and bankers that the Dolans might finally cash in their cable assets
and restructure as a media and entertainment company, the Knicks
The signs are numerous.
On Dec. 27, the company announced that it would lay off 600
employees and take a $55 million restructuring charge against fourth-quarter
earnings. “It is always very difficult to reduce staff; however, it is also
imperative that Cablevision position itself to achieve maximum operational
results,” said Mr. Dolan. He declined to comment for this story, but for a
family-run company like Cablevision-four Dolans sit on the company’s board,
including Mr. Dolan’s brothers, Patrick and Thomas-such a market-appeasing move
came as something of a surprise. Like all other media companies, Cablevision
was feeling the recession’s bite, and its stock-at 47 and change-was way off
its high of $91. But the Dolans have always been known for keeping the concerns
of the Street at a far remove.
Unlike its peers at AOL Time Warner, Cablevision has never been a
company to throw sweet growth promises to investors. For years, it has borrowed
and spent billions on building up its cable systems and acquiring its
entertainment assets. Profits and dividends, as with all cable companies, have
been nil, and during Mr. Dolan’s reign as C.E.O., the stock has increased more
than sevenfold. Those that didn’t like it-well, they could go elsewhere.
There was also a nicely choreographed Jim Dolan interview in the
Dec. 3 Barron’s . “Is the family so in
love with the business that they wouldn’t consider an offer to sell? In fact we
would,” Mr. Dolan said. The piece was peppered with flattering comments from
longtime Cablevision bulls like Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen and
one of its largest shareholders, Mario Gabelli of Gabelli Asset Management.
All of this occurred against the backdrop of AOL Time Warner’s
losing to Comcast in its bid for AT&T’s 16 million cable subscribers. For
years, speculation has been rife that Chuck Dolan’s endgame was to build up a
suburban cable empire and then sell it for a princely fee to Time Warner, the
cable giant of greater Manhattan. While bankers say that C.E.O.-to-be Dick
Parsons aggressively bid for Comcast, a Time Warner–AT&T fusion would’ve
had to clear major regulatory hurdles in Washington. Could it be that Mr.
Parsons, with his deep Washington connections, stuck his finger in the
regulatory winds and chose to pass on AT&T? Could he be preparing to lock
in New York by bidding for Cable-
vision’s three million subscribers? Whatever the case, the market has punched
Cablevision’s stock up from a low of $33 in early November to today’s $47. “I
think the Dolans are trying to send a message to Wall Street that they are
finally serious,” said one media banker familiar with the company. “The cable
systems have reached a level of maturity, while Rainbow is growing. What smart
guys do is sell the stuff that is mature and keep the stuff that is growing.”
And if there is one thing that Jim Dolan is desperate to prove,
it’s that he is a smart guy. It
hasn’t been easy; past attempts to portray the family relationship have
backfired. For example, in Newsday in
1997, Chuck Dolan was asked what he did when he came into conflict with his son
“I let him run up and down the room until he gets tired,” Mr.
“See, it’s just like it was when I was 5 years old,” Jimmy Dolan
Mr. Dolan the Younger has also worked hard to counter
the image of himself as a somewhat callow scion by charging into a number of
deals. In early 1998, he bought electronics retailer Nobody Beats the Wiz
(renamed the Wiz) after it declared bankruptcy, and later that year he acquired
the Clearview Cinema chain. Both units remain loss-makers, and as for the
promised synergies-”Clearview theater lobbies will be a great place to display
some of our products, like our high-definition television and video-on-demand,”
Mr. Dolan said at the time-well, when was the last time you saw a Cablevision
display booth in a Clearview movie house?
Make no mistake, Jimmy Dolan is a deal guy, and there have been
some very good deals. In 1997, he made a deal with John Malone and TCI in which
Cablevision gained 820,000 regional subscribers in exchange for TCI taking a
stake in Cablevision. He also was instrumental in pulling the plug on
Cablevision’s partnership in the now-bankrupt Internet service provider
Excite@Home before other investors (such as AT&T) did. While his dad is
famous for sitting back and saying no-Chuck Dolan refused to sell out to Time
Warner in 1993-the son, say bankers who have worked with him, is always eager
to deal. Indeed, they say, Jimmy Dolan was on the verge of selling Rainbow
Media to Barry Diller early in 2001, before Chuck Dolan swooped in and took the
deal off the table.
Now-perhaps not coincidentally-Jimmy is beginning to assume a
larger public profile. He was front and center in organizing the Concert for
New York City at the Garden on Oct. 20 to raise funds for the families of the
World Trade Center victims. And he attended the press conference announcing the
signing of Allan Houston’s $100 million contract. Mr. Dolan also seems to be
easing into his identity as a media player. This March, he is set to remarry in
Florida-he has four children from a previous marriage-and Rupert Murdoch and
Viacom’s Mel Karmazin reportedly have received invitations.
Nonetheless, his presence around New York remains a little
ghostly. Forty-five years old, he lives next-door to his father. He sails a
yacht and plays the guitar in his own garage-style band, the Simpson House
Band. There are echoes of a George W. Bush–like reckless youth followed by
salvation: Mr. Dolan has admitted to having been an alcoholic and chemically
dependent, and he has been sober for the last nine years.
If there is one thing that would permanently bring him out from
behind his father’s shadow, it would be the sale of the cable systems-especially
if he could finagle a price higher than the $4,500 per subscriber that Brian
Roberts at Comcast is paying for AT&T Broadband. To that end, he has sunk
over $2 billion into upgrading the system, to a point where he thinks he can
charge over $100 per month to customers. While it’s certainly doubtful that his
subscribers will eventually be worth $10,000 a head due to all sorts of
interactive e-commerce type offerings, as he recently said to Forbes , if he can get a price well north
of $4,500, he might well do it.
It would be a smart move,
too. The growth numbers for cable subscribers remain soft, and the specter of
further market-share encroachment on the part of satellite-television providers
is a constant one. AOL Time Warner is looking to deal-and on a sentimental
note, Gerald Levin, who started out in the cable business with Chuck Dolan in
the early 1970′s, is retiring this May. So the Dolans might be very happy if
Mr. Dolan turns their Cablevision stock into cash or AOL Time Warner stock
while keeping his grip on the
really fun stuff-the Knicks, the Rangers, the Rockettes, the TV programming.
And if the Knicks don’t make the playoffs, so what? Madison Square Garden’s
cash flow will take a hit, but they’ll have the money to hire a very expensive
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