Pay-per-view TV's growth watched with hope, fear

June 28, 1991|By Eric Siegel

When historians look back on tonight's rematch between heavyweight boxers Mike Tyson and Donovan "Razor" Ruddock, they may well conclude that the most important letters connected with the fight are not KO or TKO, but PPV.

That's PPV as in pay-per-view television, a growing buy-only-what-you-watch cable service on which the fight is being marketed to subscribers of about 1,400 cable systems nationwide at prices ranging up to $39.95.

With promoters hoping for well over a million "buys" of the telecast, the PPV take could exceed $50 million. That would be about 50 percent more than was generated by the first Tyson-Ruddock fight in March, which Mr. Tyson won on a controversial technical knockout. It could even surpass the PPV record of $49 million racked up by the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in April.

PPV observers say such figures could provide a significant boost for the 6-year-old industry, which generated $250 million in revenues last year from sports events, movies and concerts. They also could boost concerns about the possibility that PPV eventually might diminish access to cultural and sporting events traditionally broadcast for free.

"I think every time an event generates that kind of money, people look at the business in new ways," says Scott Kurnit, president of Showtime Event Television, which provides programming for PPV and is co-producing the telecast of tonight's fight.

Mr. Kurnit says that the money -- for a non-title fight, no less -- will encourage cable systems without the capacity to deliver pay channels to invest in the technology necessary to do so. About 17.5 million homes, a third of cable subscribers, can get PPV regularly.

It will also remind those systems that do offer PPV to step up promotion of the service, he says, potentially increasing revenues for all pay-per-view programs and providing a larger base for all events.

"It's like grocery shopping," he says. "Once you know the store is down the street, you'll go there more frequently."

Local cable operators are also looking for a shot in the arm. "We're hoping it will be bigger than the first [Tyson-Ruddock] fight," which generated about 10,000 orders and other expressions of interest in PPV, says Kurt Pendleton, general manager of Comcast Cablevision of Maryland, which serves 195,000 cable subscribers in Baltimore and Harford counties.

United Cable of Baltimore, which has 100,000 subscribers in the city, hopes to exceed the 6,000 households that bought the first Tyson-Ruddock fight and expects the positive effects to continue beyond tonight.

"What happens is that people get pay-per-view for the first time for a major event or a movie they really want to see and continue to ask for it after that," says Joyce Rutledge, program services manager at United.

While producers of pay events and cable operators look to expand what they call the PPV "universe," the researchers are working on the means to greatly increase the number of pay channels.

Advances such as fiber optics, direct broadcast satellites and compression technology are expected to triple the number of available channels on cable systems from the current average of 33, and it is expected that many of the additional channels will be devoted to PPV.

Lloyd Werner, president of Request Television, a leading provider of pay-per-view movies, foresees a doubling of households that can get PPV by the end of the decade. He expects many of them to have access to more pay channels than the current limit of four or five on most systems. That means that "more movies may be provided" beyond the current 10 to 15 a month and that there will be a "greater range of times" for viewers to watch, he says.

Even before that, however, PPV is becoming a growing factor in the presentation of culture and sports. New York's Metropolitan Opera, for example, has tentative plans to offer its 25th anniversary gala in September as a PPV event. NBC plans to offer round-the-clock coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics on three PPV channels at prices of up to $175, while telecasting other key events for free. And the National Football League has said that it might experiment with PPV telecasts as early as next season.

These developments have raised concerns about the siphoning of big events from broadcast television to PPV, raising the specter of what Representative Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications, calls a "technological Grinch which steals the Super Bowl and the World Series, the Olympics, the Oscars," thereby creating "a world of information-rich and information-poor."

Already, PPV has made a dinosaur out of closed-circuit arena telecasts, which used to draw thousands to fights involving such boxers as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. The last fight the Baltimore Arena showed was October's James "Buster" Douglas-Holyfield fight, which drew a paltry paid attendance of 936.

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