Old networks are shrinking


cable is expanding

September 13, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Forget new fall shows. Cable TV is rolling out new fall networks.

USA is launching the Sci-Fi Channel on Sept. 24. And Ted Turner is launching the Cartoon Network Oct. 1. They are offering 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week programming targeted at fans of science fiction and cartoons, respectively.

At a time when the traditional broadcast networks continue to downsize and lose audience, cable keeps on expanding and winning more and more viewers.

Overall growth of 5 percent in prime-time audience for basic cable last year was not as great as it has been in previous years, but it was still growth. And it comes at a time when the traditional networks are popping champagne corks over losing less audience than they had the year before or merely holding onto what they had. Basic cable now has a 19 percent share of the prime-time audience -- almost triple what it had five years ago.

The days of almost exponential growth for the industry appear to be ending, along with predictions that one or more of the networks is about to be driven out of business by cable, but there are still individual stories of great growth within the business.

The A&E (Arts and Entertainment) channel saw its audience grow 33 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the same period in 1991. From 1990 to '91 its ad revenues rose from $49 million to $69 million. A comparable jump is expected when final figures are available for last year.

And for almost every such action, there is a reaction. The prime-time audience for PBS, the broadcaster whose programming is most like that on A&E, shrank 9 percent last year. The two now vie for the same English programs, and A&E is attacking PBS with fierce counterprogramming -- like the 13-part "House of Elliot" (from the BBC and Jean Marsh of "Upstairs, Downstairs"), which is running against Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday nights.

Cable's great advantage over the broadcast networks is that it ++ was designed for narrowcasting, or niche programming. On the business side, cable networks can exist -- in fact, were built to thrive -- on a sliver of the audience that a broadcast network needs. On the viewing side, the narrow focus of cable channels allows them to speak to the cultural diversity of the American audience in a way no broadcaster could ever hope to.

There is a cloud or two on the cable horizon -- mainly in the form of legislation being pushed in Congress by broadcasters that would require cable operators to compensate the networks for carrying their signals. The broadcasters are desperate for this to happen. And it might. But it will probably only mean higher fees for consumers, not a change in the structure of cable TV. And it is highly unlikely that customers -- who now include viewers in two out of every three TV households -- will decide they can do without cable.

New channels, programs

Outside of that, the season ahead looks like a good one for cable.

The Sci-Fi Channel is typical of cable growth. It's owned by the USA Network, which had the largest prime-time audience of any cable channel (as of the first quarter of this year) and has been looking to expand. USA is now making as many of its own made-for-TV movies a year as ABC or CBS, so it knew it could tailor new film products to fit the format.

USA decided on science fiction, "because it attracts a very desirable demographic group that the industry has yet to tap," said Kay Koplovitz, president and CEO of the USA Network. "Science fiction fans are young, 18 to 34 years old and well-educated. Consider that 11 of the top 12 grossing feature films of all-time are in the science fiction, fantasy and horror categories, and you get a sense for the potential of this network."

That's narrowcasting by age, interest and sensibility -- something no one does as well as cable's MTV. MTV's look is being copied everywhere on broadcast television. NBC's Tom Brokaw special last Sunday, "Decision '92: 58 Days," was one of the more obvious and heavy-handed attempts.

Cable TV is also narrowcasting by gender, and no one does that better than Lifetime, the channel for women.

Like USA, the network makes its own movies and will offer a full slate of titles this fall, including "Majority Rule," with Blair Brown portraying a female candidate for president, on Oct. 27.

Lifetime will enter the public affairs arena this month with a prime-time special for which Lynn Sherr of ABC News will be host. "Seize the Power, A Lifetime Challenge to the Women of America," will look at what the November election means to women.

BET (Black Entertainment Television) narrowcasts by race. And it, too, is raising its game to the next level. Tim Reid, whose "Frank's Place" has become a symbol to some viewers of the traditional networks' inability to understand anything but mass audiences, has signed with the network as a producer.

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