Media consolidation becomes dating game for cable CEOs

Media consolidation is topic du jour at INTX. Charter, Time Warner Cable asked about their intentions

There were lights, cameras and more than a few beads of sweat.

And some awkward moments.

Front and center at the Internet and Television Expo convention in Chicago this week has been the building anticipation over whether Time Warner Cable, newly split from its failed deal to combine with Comcast, would instead pair up with another former suitor, Charter Communications.

The stage was set on Wednesday with Time Warner Cable Chief Executive Robert Marcus and Charter Communications Chief Executive Thomas Rutledge sitting next to each other during a panel of top brass from five cable companies. CNBC media reporter Julia Boorstin, who was moderating the panel, asked the two men whether they had anything to announce.

Marcus stammered and said Time Warner Cable was focused on building its business. He said he would not comment on the rampant rumors.

"The world is full of possibilities, but I can't tell you any of them," Rutledge joked.

Not to be outdone, Cablevision Chief Executive James Dolan, who also was on stage, said he was ready to do a deal -- with Time Warner Cable. Why not bring together the two largest pay-TV providers that serve New York, he asked.

The other CEOs appeared stunned, as did the crowd.

"I'm not sure if I just got asked out on a date, or proposed marriage," Marcus said.

(Dolan's comment helped drive Cablevision's shares 6% during trading).

Boorstin asked Dolan to explain what he meant. He said he was proposing consolidation in specific media markets, which could mean working more cooperatively with Time Warner Cable or some combination.

Rather than a marriage, Dolan described his concept more like living in "a commune."

Wall Street analysts and industry executives are bracing for more consolidation. The government is separately weighing AT&T's bid to buy DirecTV for $49 billion, a deal that was unveiled last May.

On Wednesday, Pat Esser, president of Cox Communications, had the best line.

"I feel I’m on match.com," Esser said. "We are all trying to update our status right now in front of 10,000 people and it’s a little awkward."

Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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