1994 may be marked by cable network boom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, the first cable television channel of the new year will premiere.

It's The Time Channel.

All the time, all the time.

We are, of course, kidding. But the plausibility of a 24-hour channel devoted solely to airing accurate time illustrates how the so-called 500-channel cable universe of the future has become, in some circles anyway, utterly laughable.

To many viewers, today's cable systems of 36 to 70 channels are already vast wastelands of sitcom reruns, old movies that few watched the first time around and LaToya Jackson psychic infomercials.

True, channel surfers are salivating at the prospect of a tidal wave of choices. More ESPN. More MTV. More premium channels.

But others are asking whether a channel system 500 strong should even be built. And if it is, will anyone come?

Cable is no longer on the fast track of the '80s, when it grew like ragweed. Viewership, compared with the huge leaps of a few years ago, is down -- ratings during November dropped to a 10.2 from a 12 rating a year ago. That, along with scarce new channel capacity, has prompted the broadcast networks to proclaim that saturation has finally caught up to the freewheeling, free-spending cable networks.

A leveling-off period was bound to happen. But is this it?

"I wouldn't necessarily call it saturation," insists Bridget Blumberg, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Cable Television Association. "I'd call it very limited channel capacity. I mean, there are 77 networks in existence. The average [cable system] has 33 channels, some more, some less. It's extremely competitive. Until the advent of full-blown digital compression, only so much channel space will be available."

This "digital compression" actually involves converting the TV signal into digital, or computer, language. Once converted, the signal can be electronically "compressed," multiplying the number of signals, in some cases tenfold.

Same space, more offerings

But these technological advances are still a few years down the line. Until then, new networks must persuade cable systems to add them to their existing channel space. One new network, National Empowerment Television, launched on just one cable system.

Still, more than a dozen networks, boasting service from two to 24 hours and reaching a nationwide if patchwork audience, have started in the past five months. Another dozen are expected to arrive in the first half of 1994. Many more, including networks geared to aviation, soaps, the military, arts and antiques, game shows, fitness, golf, history and gay and lesbian issues, are planning channels by the end of next year.

Still, new channels are coming, banking on their ability to lure demographics-hungry advertisers by offering subject matter tailored to narrow segments of the population, no matter how great the obstacles appear. Black Entertainment Television CEO Bob Johnson, for instance, will launch an all-jazz network next year, though jazz has traditionally had trouble attracting listeners to radio and pulling audiences into clubs.

Talk TV Network plans to provide 16 hours of call-in programs featuring such successful radio hosts as Bruce Williams and Jim Bohannon despite the current overwhelming selection of daytime and nighttime talk shows on the networks and in syndication.

The Television Food Network -- a service "committed to food" from cooking to consumer lifestyle issues -- began broadcasting six hours daily to 6.5 million subscribers Thanksgiving eve.

TVFN offers advertisers a specific audience that, for better or worse, has a connection with food.

"What makes it a gamble, if you want to call it that, is without consumer demand for the services, advertisers will not follow," says Louis Benning, a cable industry analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co.

"The most successful channels are those which are simple, something someone needs. Much like magazines, they want viewers to watch for specific, very personal reasons. That's what drives cable channels today."

It's what drives Jake Steinfeld, the fitness titan who was already reaching millions through his "Body By Jake" empire of television aerobics programs, videotapes and books before laying the foundation for the Cable Health Club network three years ago.

CHC, launching at full throttle in January, will focus on hourly aerobic workouts, fitness training and segments on healthful lifestyles and new products. Why an entire network devoted to working out? Mr. Steinfeld says nearly $3 billion was spent for in-home exercise equipment last year.

He expects the network to be in 10 million homes by the end of 1994, hardly a fool's dream considering the 58 million who receive the Family Channel, which is helping launch Cable Health Club by carrying it in place of its regular programming 10 hours a week.

Is it a crime?

Arnie Frank agrees. A 30-year veteran of film and TV distribution, he started The Crime Channel in July. It offers 27 hours of weekly documentaries, series, feature films and other crime-related programming.

Education is said to be the motivating factor for National Empowerment Television as well.

NET, "a C-SPAN with attitude," as its creators like to call it, is probably more of a Republican's version of public-affairs channel CNBC, and with a cynical bite. It plans to offer unedited coverage of the daily proceedings of Congress, report extensively on the administration and program a slew of talk shows featuring well-known conservatives like Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

"If you look at what Rush Limbaugh has been able to do with a fairly simple format, I think the potential is definitely there," says Paul Weyrich, NET founder and president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative public policy group.

Launched Dec. 6 with a budget of $10 million in donated funds, NET espouses a conservative viewpoint, although wine lovers of every political stripe could enjoy The Vine Line and anyone who works from home could find Home Business worth checking out.

"We're not seeking to go toward the right," explains Mr. Weyrich, a former television news reporter. "We simply want to call it like it is. We're open to all viewpoints. But what's certain is that this is one network that will always be on America's side."

Broadcasters are leery

What isn't certain is how everything will fit. How it will eventually look.

The broadcast networks, as you might imagine, are skeptical. Cable supporters call it fear.

"More choices means more frustration," warns George Schweitzer, CBS senior vice president of marketing and communication. "I think television will be like programming your car radio. There are many choices, but only a handful are programmed. And those are the few you listen to on a regular basis."

NBC president and CEO Robert Wright foresees the 500-channel universe as a proliferation of pay-per-view movie channels and multiplexing of premium services, such as ESPN 2, and MTV, which plans to subdivide into various music genres, from R&B; to hard rock.

As for the glut of channels, says Mr. Wright, "I think they'll fly right in the face of economic reality. Being in a fragmented market will make it difficult to get enough advertising revenue to support themselves."

Indeed, Mr. Steinfeld's Cable Health Club network shouldn't be confused with FXTV, Fitness and Exercise Television or The Health Channel (but probably will be). The Game Channel, says president and CEO Tim Robertson, is different from The Game Show Channel and The Gaming & Entertainment Network.

Ovation (launching in November 1994), a cultural channel, sounds a lot like Bravo; Ted Turner's Turner Classic Movies (April 1994 launch) will overlap his own TNT; the World African Network says it will offer programming to "the 30 million African-Americans," which, come to think of it, is exactly what BET has been professing to do for 13 years.

Ms. Blumberg of the National Cable Television Association says many proposed channels will never see the light of day. Those most likely to survive will be the ones launched by established networks -- USA Network's Sci-Fi Channel and Turner's The Cartoon Network, for instance -- which means history is on the side of BET's Cable Jazz Network and Cable Health Club.

Others must rely on deep pockets. FAD TV -- Fashion and Design Television, devoted to fashion, design, travel and entertainment -- is being launched by Anthony Guccione, son of Penthouse publisher Robert Guccione.

Mr. Guccione says he hopes to rope viewers who have "outgrown the musical content of MTV."

Oblivious to the competition, he epitomizes the new wave of channel entrepreneurs in thinking that his network will be the best.

Asked what FAD TV will be, he says proudly, "The ultimate lifestyle channel."

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