In an ordinary residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., the future of cable television will officially go on-line today. That's when the Time Warner New York City Cable Group will hook up the first subscriber to receive the nation's only 150-channel cable-TV system.
"It's safe to say that this event is going to signal a new chapter in cable-television history," said National Cable Television Association spokeswoman Peggy Laramie.
At present, the average cable-TV home in America is capable of receiving about 35 channels, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Cable industry leaders say that, for many cable systems, that number could swell to to 150 channels within two years, thanks to advances in fiber optics and digitally compressed TV signals.
If you're wondering at this point: "One-hundred-and-fifty channels of what?" or "How much is this going to cost me?," the Time Warner system, which is starting out slowly with 10,000 subscribers in two neighborhoods, is a model of what's in store for the rest of the country.
The system's existing 75 channels of standard and premium services will remain virtually intact. Fifty-seven added channels will be devoted to the Time Warner Home Theater, consisting entirely of pay-per-view programming. The remaining 18 new channels will be reserved for satellite programming services and interactive telecommunications tests, such as mini-cellular telephone service, teleconferencing, computer networks, FAX machines, electronic banking and, as the technology develops, high-definition TV broadcasts.
The cost to run the hybrid system of fiber optics and coaxial cable into a neighborhood is about $150 to $200 per subscriber, said Jim Duffy, spokesman for American Television and Communications, a Time Warner unit.
Time Warner, however, will not raise its standard cable rate of $22.95 and will only charge higher fees to subscribers who order pay-per-view shows.
"What we want to do eventually is have Chinese restaurant menu ordering," Duffy said. "In other words, a cable subscriber might say, 'I want two of the three network affiliates, CNN and ESPN, and that's all.' "
Cable industry sources agree that as these multichannel systems spread, a restructuring of the cable-TV subscription service will be in order.
In anticipation of a larger cable universe, most established cable networks are developing or testing plans to spin off into new channels or to "multiplex" their programming on more than one channel. ESPN is researching a separate sports news network. Turner Broadcasting, which recently acquired Hanna-Barbera, is talking about an animated children's channel. And the home-shopping network QVC envisions a TV shopping galleria, where viewers can enter a new store with each channel.
In an effort to help retain subscribers tired of paying for a high-ticket movie channel, HBO will multiplex HBO and sister station Cinemax on the new 150-channel Time Warner system. Viewers in Queens, for the regular HBO price, will receive HBO, HBO 2 and HBO 3 -- offering the same programming at different starting times.
"We're shoring up and making pay television more valuable in anticipation of 150 channels of television," said Betsy Bruce, vice president of field marketing for HBO.