By GREGORY ZELLER //
Add the Fair Media Council to the list of organizations opposing the proposed sale of Cablevision to Altice.
Citing “grave concern for the public interest, public safety and the local economy,” Jaci Clement, CEO and executive director of the Bethpage-based media watchdog, has urged the New York State Public Service Commission to nix the proposed $17.7 billion sale, which includes Newsday, the News 12 operation and their corresponding websites, as well as Cablevision’s Wi-Fi, phone and cable-television services.
Altice Group, the Netherlands-based multinational telecoms provider owned by French entrepreneur Patrick Drahi, announced plans in September to purchase the Dolan family’s publicly traded cable operator, also based in Bethpage. The $17.7 billion deal includes $10 billion in cash and Altice’s assumption of existing debt, and would create the fourth-largest cable operator in the U.S. market.
In a letter to New York PSC Secretary Kathleen Burgess, Clement spelled out her watchdog’s strong opposition to the deal, stating it “will fail to serve the public interest, as well as prove detrimental to the local economy, as well as the news and cable industry.”
The letter references a Sept. 17 conference call with Altice investors, during which the company discussed its intentions to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in Cablevision expenses within months of taking ownership, primarily through reductions in Cablevision’s 14,000-strong workforce.
Altice has already suggested employee and operations consolidations between Cablevision and Suddenlink Communications, another recent Altice acquisition based in Missouri.
Those regional job losses, plus the large Cablevision debt Altice would assume, makes it “incomprehensible that such a high-risk sale shall be approved for one of the region’s biggest employers,” Clement wrote to the commission.
“Cablevision’s control of the distribution of information to the people of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, via its cable, Internet and Wi-Fi offerings, stands to suffer readily should Altice not find the profit margins they need to reinvest in the aging communications infrastructure,” Clement added in the letter.
She also reminded the commission of the “vulnerability” created by Long Island’s coastal geography, and “the important role Cablevision systems’ information dissemination provides in times of emergency.”
This week, the Fair Media Council exec and CEO of boutique communications firm Great Legs Media continued lambasting the sale, citing not only the “burden of debt” but “Altice’s reputation for diminished services.”
“This is a perfect storm of a deal that will result in irreparable harm to the public and the region,” Clement told Innovate LI in a statement.
The Fair Media Council joins the Communications Workers of America in opposing the deal. Union representatives and Cablevision customers flooded a Jan. 27 PSC hearing in the Bronx to raise similar concerns about Altice’s reputation for slashing jobs and taking on large debt through acquisitions, and have made similar appearances at public hearings in Peekskill and in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
New York City and New York State have also opposed the sale, with both governments making it official in PSC filings Friday. While there’s already been legal wrangling about whether NYC has any authority in this matter, city officials made their concerns clear, questioning how Altice can cut some $900 million while still investing in fiber-to-the-premises and maintaining customer-service operations.
The city filing also suggested a range of concessions be attached to any approved deal, including forcing Altice to offer a $10/month broadband plan for low-income customers and a five-year embargo on non-executive layoffs.
In its PSC filing, the state echoed many of the same concerns, and argued that neither Altice nor Cablevision has proved the deal is in the public interest.
The companies, which have dismissed the CWA opposition as mischaracterizations and an attempt to further the union’s own interests, have time to make their case: The PSC is not set to rule on the deal until April 29.
Between now and then, however, the opposition figures to grow louder. The CWA plans to take its interstate crusade next to the New York City Franchise Concession Review Committee and the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, while the Fair Media Council plans to continue rallying opposition across Nassau and Suffolk.
“The council has listened intently to the concerns expressed by our members and supporters,” Clement said Tuesday. “And the consensus is this: ‘No’ to foreign ownership. ‘No’ to the loss of local control. ‘No’ to Cablevision revenue leaving the local economy.
“And ‘no’ to the announced cost-cutting measures,” she added, noting they will not only cost jobs but “diminish service, news and information.”