Shadowboxing

Six weeks after the fact, Les Garland is still scratching his head, wondering just what the hell happened.

Nineteen ninety-five was a good year for the Box, the Miami-based music-video cable service where Garland works as executive vice president. Advertising revenue for the nine-year-old company had reached an all-time high, thanks in part to new clients such as Calvin Klein, MCI, and Reebok; the Box had branched out into international markets, including Holland, South America, and the United Kingdom. New investors had climbed aboard, such as Island Records president Chris Blackwell; its commercial clout and influence had already been established, thanks to the success of a host of artists who made their video debuts on the Box, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, nine inch nails, Toni Braxton, Green Day, Primus, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. In 1987, about a year after the service introduced its pay-per-view music-video format to cable subscribers in Modesto, California, the Box was being aired in 400,000 homes nationwide. Near the end of 1995, it was offering a mix of rap, soul, alternative, and hard-rock videos -- all ordered up by viewers for anywhere from 99 cents to three bucks a pop -- into more than 23 million homes in the U.S. and abroad.

Then last November the bomb was dropped: Time Warner Cable announced it was removing the Box from its New York City cable systems as of January 2, citing ratings so low they were comparable to those of a public-access channel. Replacing the Box would be the History Channel and CNNfn, a news-finance service owned by Cable News Network boss Ted Turner. Losing the New York market would cost the Box about a million viewers in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn; additionally, the corporate offices of numerous New York-based record labels would no longer be able to tune in.

"I think it was the most devastated I've felt in all my years in the music business," says Garland of the announcement. A five-year veteran at the Box and a long-time radio and TV executive, Garland was also a ground-floor player at MTV, where he worked as vice president of programming from 1981 to 1988. "I'm still baffled by it. It's been six weeks and I can say in all honesty that, to this day, I don't know why [Time Warner Cable] did it. They've been quoted as saying it was due to research they did, but no one from our company has seen any of that research."

Time Warner Cable's research was conducted over a three-year period by an independent group that Richard Aurelio, the cable company's New York division president, refuses to name. He will say that a percentage of Time Warner Cable subscribers were surveyed to find their programming likes and dislikes, and that there was very low subscriber interest in the Box, whereas interest in the History Channel was considerable.

"The decision was made on behalf of our customers," Aurelio contends. "Over the last three years, [the Box] has rated very low in value to our customers and there has been a tremendous demand here for other program services. As has been the case numerous times in the past, it served the interest of our subscribers to provide them with the services they were requesting, and one of those services, for instance, was the History Channel."

Believing the Time Warner surveys yielded an inaccurate response from the Box's targeted 12-to-29-year-old demographic, and buttressed by support from industry big shots such as Madonna, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Arista Records president Clive Davis, the network hired Real Sound Research, an independent research firm owned by Music Marketing Network of Red Bank, New Jersey. Results from Real Sound's two-day survey on December 6 and 7 revealed that three of every four Time Warner Cable subscribers who watched the Box wanted the company to keep it, and that more than half of those polled indicated they would have a lower opinion of the cable company if the Box were deleted from the lineup of available channels.

The results surprised even Garland. "We knew we were a hit in New York," he states. "We knew we helped sell records there and we had a healthy relationship with the radio stations and staged some enormously successful events there. But [the research] showed us we were an even bigger hit there than we thought. We were probably more successful and popular in Manhattan and the rest of New York City than in any other city in the country. Their research doesn't make sense. That's the part of this whole incident that leaves me wondering why."

(Regarding the Box's survey results, Aurelio says: "I'm not impressed with their research. They have a tendency to say a lot of things that have no basis in fact." He adds that since the Box was axed on January 2, Time Warner has received "not one subscriber complaint about the switch. I've had a lot of complaints from the music industry, but not one customer has complained.")

Recent articles in the Village Voice and the newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential have speculated that the Box's high concentration of rap and hip-hop videos -- many of which don't make it onto MTV until their success has been established on the Box -- was the reason the network was dropped. Time Warner, after all, recently severed its ties with the wildly successful Interscope Records as a result of controversy generated by artists on the record label's roster, especially Snoop Doggy Dogg and his proteges in Tha Dogg Pound. Aurelio, however, claims that's a "silly notion"; even Garland doubts that is the case. "If that is true, it's never been said by anyone at Time Warner," Garland shrugs. "I believe there are some corporate politics involved somewhere, but I don't know where."

Garland is more concerned that Time Warner's decision to bounce the network could have repercussions in smaller and perhaps more conservative markets. "There is a large fear here that this could begin a domino effect," Garland says. "It could give an operator in Tulsa, for instance, the idea to either take you off the air or not give you a chance -- the thinking being, 'If it's not working in New York City, why would it work here?' But that hasn't happened yet, and we aren't shutting the doors and going out of business and we aren't going to run away. Throughout the office, after the initial shock of the news, it sort of mobilized our team. There was a bonding, a determination to not just roll over and let this happen."

Garland is convinced that another slot will eventually open in Time Warner's New York lineup as the company expands its programming choices. He also believes that the Box's reputation among music-industry insiders as a breeding ground for new acts -- coupled with its Box Latino offshoot, which will make its Miami debut in late February -- will keep it in competition with MTV, the network's only major adversary in the music-video industry and an institution he thinks is ripe for toppling. "It's just a matter of time before we're back in New York," Garland declares. "There is no question in my mind that it was a hit there with consumers. So often we have people saying that [the Box] is like MTV used to be. That's what made us a hit in New York and everywhere else. We don't have game shows and we don't have blocked programming with just one type of music. People at home don't look at music in categories. They like the way our programming flows -- the differentiations between the music. And too many people at the cable companies and record companies forget that the consumers -- the people watching and listening -- are the most important element here.

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