DOLAN, CHARLES F.

U.S. Media Executive

Charles F. Dolan is one of the least known but most powerful moguls in the modern cable television industry in the United States. In early 1995 his corporate creation, Cablevision Systems, Inc., ranked as the fifth largest operator in the United States, serving some 2.6 million subscribers in 19 states, about 1.5 million of them in the New York metropolitan area. "Chuck" Dolan's Cablevision Systems Corporation also owns and controls a number of noted cable television networks, headed by the popular and influential American Movie Classics. In 1995 The New York Times estimated Dolan's net worth at $175 million.

Headquartered in Long Island, New York, Dolan organized Cablevision Systems in 1973. He had started in the cable TV business a decade earlier with Sterling Television, an equipment supplier. During the 1960s Sterling acquired the franchise for Manhattan Island and when Time, Inc. purchased Sterling, Dolan used the substantial proceeds to buy some Long Island systems that he turned into Cablevision Systems.

Dolan correctly figured the action for cable would move to the suburbs and turned the locus of Cablevision Systems to the millions of potential customers living in areas surrounding New York City, particularly in Long Island's close-in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. In time Dolan also acquired franchises controlling 190,000 customers in Fairfield, Connecticut, a quarter of a millon more in Northern New Jersey, and 60,000 in West Chester County. He also purchased and/or built cable TV systems across the United States, in Arkansas and Illinois, in Maine and Michigan, in Missouri and Ohio.

In 1988 Dolan added NBC as a minority partner. General Electric had recently purchased NBC, and prior to that had helped Dolan finance the expansion of Cablevision Systems. Thereafter Dolan, with help from NBC, moved into cable network programming in a major way. He crafted American Movie Classics into the top classic movie channel on cable. Building through grass roots marketing, American Movie Classics quietly became one of the fastest growing of cable networks as the 1990s opened. Soon The New York Times was lavishing praise on AMC [American Movie Classics]: "It's more than nostalgia. It's a chance to see black-and-white films which may have slipped through the cracks. It's wall-to-wall movies with no commercials, no aggressive graphics, no pushy sound, no sensory MTV overload, no time frame. There's a sedate pace, a pseudo-PBS quality about AMC. It's the Masterpiece Theater of movies."

Sports programming has also done well for Dolan, but on a regional basis. Dolan's regional sports channels cablecast all forms of sports to the millions of subscribers, on his and other cable systems, in the new York City area. The New York Yankees and New York Mets baseball games are particularly successful. By 1994 Dolan had done so well he partnered with billion dollar conglomerate ITT to purchase Madison Square Garden for $1 billion. Suddenly Cablevision Systems was the major player in sports marketing in the New York City area, owning the Knicks basketball team, the Rangers hockey team, the Madison Square Garden cable TV network, and the most famous venue for indoor sports in the United States. As of mid-1990s, however, Dolan's other great experiments, 24-hour local news on cable TV and the Bravo arts channel, have not been this profitable.

Local around the clock news began in 1986 as News 12 Long Island. This niche service came about because of the long frustrating inability of New York City's over-the-air TV stations to serve Long Island. Viewers not only appreciated News 12's basic half hour newswheel, but also its multi-part reports that ran for a half hour or more. Such programs would never be possible for telecast by a New York City television station under current economic constraints.

With prize winning series on breast cancer, drug abuse, and Alzheimer's disease, News 12 Long Island established a brand image. During election campaigns, the channel regularly staged candidate debates, and local politicians loved having their faces presented there. But little money came in to pay for these features, and only after a decade did it seem that News 12 would finally make money.

The same difficult economic calculus affects the arts oriented Bravo channel. It is popular with well-off consumers, but too few of these tune in on a regular basis. Bravo merely hangs on, cable casting only a half-day schedule.

In sum Dolan's accomplishments have been considerable. Though not well known to the general public, he helped establish cable television as an economic, social, and cultural force in the United States during the final quarter of the 20th century. He represents the TV entrepreneur in the true sense of the word, comparable to more publicized figures who started NBC and CBS, David Sarnoff and William S. Paley.

Dolan continues to look to the future, seeking significant positions for his menu of cable programming networks and franchises on the "electronic superhighway." Like other cable entrepreneurs of the late 20th century, he has pledged 500 channels, movies on demand, and interactive video entertainment and information. As of the late 1990s those plans remain promises.

-Douglas Gomery


Charles F. Dolan
Photo courtesy of Cablevision Systems Corporation

CHUCK F. DOLAN. Attended John Carroll University. Married: Helen, children: MariAnne, Theresa, Deborah, James, Patrick, Thomas. Served briefly in the U.S. Air Force at the end of World War II. Worked at a radio station during high school, writing radio scripts and commercials; operated sports newsreel business; joined Sterling Television, 1954; built first urban cable television system, in Manhattan, 1961; president, Sterling Manhattan Cable, 1961-72; creator, Home Box Office pay movie service, 1970; sold interests in Manhattan cable service and HBO to Time, Inc., 1973; created and served as chair and chief executive, Cablevision Systems, one of the country's largest cable installations, until 1995; developed first local all-news channel for cable; created Rainbow Program Enterprises, operator of regional and national cable networks, including American Movie Classics, Bravo and SportsChannel; elected chair of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1996.

FURTHER READING

Burgi, Michael. "Cablevision's Bold Visionary." Mediaweek (Brewster, New York), 4 July 1994.

"Chuck Dolan of Cablevision on Making the Most of Cable's Head Start in the Wired Nation" (interview). Broadcasting, 31 October 1988.

Lieberman, David. "A Cable Mogul's Daring Dance on the High Wire." Business Week (New York), 5 June 1989.