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America's top cable tycoon looks at the complex years just ahead

By Arthur Unger / June 5, 1981



America's No. 1 cable tycoon is a man who in less than a decade has turned a If the country's burgeoning cable TV industry has its own William Paley, he is undoubtedly Charles (Chuck) Francis Dolan, managing partner of Cablevision Systems Development Company of Woodbury, N. Y.

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Like CBS pioneer Paley, Chuck Dolan possesses longrange vision, short-term foresight, entrepreneurial acumen, programming ingenuity -- and enough self-assurance to act with calculated abandon on his beliefs.

And, oh yes, like CBS's Paley, Cablevision's Dolan has moved with startling rapidity into the multimillionaire class.

It is estimated that in the eight years he has presided over the $250 million Cablevision operation, he has come to be worth -- on paper at least -- more than the 80's Chuck Dolan may be worth a half billion dollars.

However, the millions don't show. I met Mr. Dolan for lunch at the exclusive Metropolitan Club, just off fifth Avenue. Despite his current affluence, he is a shy, self-effacing man, with a sly sense of humor and an unobtrusive intensity which, in conversation, encourages the interviewer to join him in delving into his areas of expertise.

Mr. Dolan has managed to hang on to his limited partnership, mom-and-pop cable business in an era when large conglomerates are busy acquiring systems from entrepreneurs, as in the case of Westinghouse's acquisition of Teleprompter and American Express's involvement with Warner-Amex.

Mr. Dolan's partner's include Marshall Field and Newton Minnow, among many others. But he insists he will not sell out to the titans.

Instead, Mr. Dolan keeps expanding his own privatelyheld company -- Cablevision is the largest cable system in the New York metropolitan area, serving close to 200,000 households.He also holds 18 franchises in the chicago area. In addition, Mr. Dolan's company is applying for franchises in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, having formed a joint corporation with a black organization in Brooklyn in order to improve its chances for that franchise as the only applicant with solid ethnic representation.

Mr. Dolan, who was the original creator of Home Box Office, now the most successful movie channel in operation, created Sportschannel, the nation's first optional pay cable system, with exclusive rights to nonbroadcast games of the New York Yankees, New Jersey Nets, New York Mets, New york Islanders and sporting events from Notre Dame and Columbia Universities. Cablevision also developed Bravo, cable TV's first performing arts channel.

What next for Chuck Dolan, who started in the business about 30 years ago at the age of 25 with a sports newsreel service?

"We are now proceeding through the franchise period for the urban areas. That will be wound up in 1983 and then we will reach the point of seeing whether everything that has been promised can actually be delivered -- double-feeder home terminals, two-way interactive systems, etc. If all that comes to pass then we have an almost unlimited channel capacity. Then, we are headed for a large mix of channels supported by direct viewer subscription -- the pay channels, either on a monthly subscription basis or on a pay-per-view basis. And there will be the advertiser-supported channels, delivered primarily by satellite, as well as the audience-initiated channels, the public access channelss. They will have different kinds of support. And, there will be the local-origination channels, initiated by the cable system itself out of its concept of what it ought to do to provide local service to its subscribers. All of that will produce an enormous proliferation -- mostly within the pay area and in the areas where the subscriber is given the opportunity to choose what he wants to have on his screen. Services that really find and serve their audiences ought to be perpetuated."

Mr. Dolan indicates that he believes the advertising supported services are also important but may run into economic problems much sooner than the other services. "We now have a wonderful Cable News Network and a sports network addressing two primary interests, neither one reporting financial success yet.

"Soon we will have a women's channel, several more performing arts channels, a music channel, a children's channel, a 24-hour weather channel, all supposedly supported by advertisers. The audiences will be so fragmented, it may be a dubious venture for advertisers."

At what point will two-way interactive TV become economically feasible?