Cable pioneers assess the industry's future


DALLAS -- Cable television has grown so big, so quickly, and so broadly, that Charles Dolan, a card-carrying pioneer, falls somewhat short of being designated a visionary.

What, if anything, about his industry has turned out differently than he imagined 10 years ago?

"Just about everything," said the chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., who founded the first big-city cable system, in New York City in 1961, and the premium service Home Box Office.

It's the same for Bob Pittman, Kay Koplovitz, Robert Johnson and Ted Turner. They're all cable major-domos who must admit that theirs has been a very lucrative enterprise but one tough to predict.

They all surfaced on a panel seeking to assess the industry's programming future at the recent National Cable Television Association annual convention here. While much of the industry's attention is focused on regulatory battles in Congress, they considered something potentially dear to consumers: What will be on their TV screens 5 or 10 years down the road?

Mr. Pittman, a one-time Wunderkind responsible for the launch of five cable networks, including Music Television (MTV) and Nickelodeon, "never would have guessed" how many narrowly cast services there would be. His best hunch these days involves the increasingly publicized melding of TV and computer technologies that brings together such once-unlikely prospective partners as IBM and Time Warner for talks, and that may well change viewing lives.

"We now have the opportunity to develop another type of television," said Mr. Pittman, president of a Time Warner subsidiary, Time Warner Enterprises. He pointed to what he considers TV's "biggest stumbling block," namely, its sequential nature.

If you pick up a newspaper, book or magazine, you can switch to any page you desire, backward or forward. It's a process that Mr. Pittman calls random access and, he figures, will be replicated ultimately on TV.

It means the ability, say, to request looks at a particular piece of clothing -- say a ski parka -- in myriad digitized shopping catalogs, superimposing the ones you like on an image of your body and having it all move on the screen.

"If you look at the size of the markets we'd draw from," Mr. Pittman said, alluding to such examples as classified advertising and consumer goods, "they're much bigger than television or box office [movies].

"The minute we can put random access into television, we can create entirely new forms," he added. "The services we can invent on the next level, once we can put smarts in the TVs, will make the current sources of revenues pale by comparison."

Increased racial and ethnic diversity was forecast by Mr. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, the first black-oriented cable service, while the growth of what's tagged "virtual reality" is one guess of Ms. Koplovitz, president of USA Network. (Virtual reality, technologically feasible now, allows a viewer to become a participant in, say, a video game playing out on the screen).

The panel's elder statesmen were Mr. Dolan and Mr. Turner, president of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. The former was given on this day to mull over the evolving breadth of programming services, while Mr. Turner brought the audience back to the bottom line: money.

Mr. Dolan, who operates cable systems in 11 states and has major equity interest in programming services such as American Movie Classics and Bravo, thinks the number of channels is infinite.

"How thin can the pie be sliced?" Mr. Dolan asked. "If we go to the analogy of print, that gives us a glimpse of what it can be.

"Whatever interest exists, it's served by print," he continued. "There are 12,000 periodicals printed, hundreds of new books every year, and newspapers serving every community and field of interest."

Thus, he imagines virtually any type of niche service, with consumers hooked into a usage-based billing system. Want karate lessons? A ball game? A French art film? Travel guide to the Pacific Northwest?

That prospect constitutes the day's prevailing wisdom, though the matter of cost to consumers has proved a tough matter for the industry. Part of its substantial image problem reflects an often cavalier attitude about pricing.

"I think the industry has to be more responsible about rate increases and improving service," said Mr. Turner.

Marketing any new service is no easy feat. And the industry, Mr. Turner believes, can't raise the monthly fee for basic service (about $20) much more.

"I think we're up against the edge on that," said one pioneer with a distinct sense of the present.

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