It's the best of times, and the worst In world of cable TV, regulations confuse, programming excels FALL TV PREVIEW

September 12, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

National Cable Television Association President James Mooney opened this year's annual convention in San Francisco by saying, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. That's how I feel. Everything's great, but this is a lousy situation we're in."

It might not be original, but it's perfectly apt in summing up the split world of cable TV today.

It is the worst of times, from the industry's point of view, for owners of cable systems who suddenly find themselves being regulated by the federal government, thanks to the Cable TV Act 1992.

Rate restructuring started Sept. 1. While cable operators outfoxed the Federal Communications Commission and actually managed to raise cable rates for many subscribers this month, it's estimated that overall the legislation will take a $1 billion bite out of industry coffers over the next year. And Congress and the FCC have vowed to tighten remaining loopholes.

Furthermore, the clock is ticking on the issue of retransmission consent, which means that after Oct. 6 cable operators will no longer be able to carry local stations without permission from the broadcasters. Many cable operators don't even want to think about what's going to happen to their businesses if "Roseanne" or the World Series aren't on their lineups come October.

But that's the business of delivering cable programs to customers. As for the programs themselves, the industry is riding a tremendous high.

In July, cable TV achieved a landmark parity with network programming when HBO It's the best of times, and the worst received 55 Emmy nominations, to tie with ABC.

And, for the first time, many of the nominations were in high-profile categories, such as best comedy show ("The Larry Sanders Show") and best made-for-TV movies ("Barbarians at the Gate" and "Stalin," among others).

In fact, four of the five nominees for TV movie of the year are from cable, while the fifth is from PBS. The networks, meanwhile, spent their movie dollars last year mostly making Amy Fisher trilogies.

Next Sunday night, during the Emmy telecast, cable TV programs are going to shine like never before, with a network prime-time audience watching.

The cable programming that's in store for viewers in coming months looks to be even better than last year's. The most-anticipated made-for-TV movie of the season, "And The Band Played On," premiered last night on HBO, with additional play dates scheduled through the month.

Filmed as a docudrama from Randy Shilts' book of the same title, it's the movie about AIDS that the networks wouldn't make. And it makes cable an even bigger winner in terms of prestige movies. Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin don't make TV movies for the networks.

In addition to the impressive cast HBO lined up for "And The Band Played On," the network has Daryl Hannah starring in a remake of the the '50s sci-fi classic, "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman."

Showtime has John Lithgow, Rosanna Arquette and the nude scene folks are talking about in "The Wrong Man" this month.

Arts & Entertainment has Timothy Dalton in "Framed," a two-part drama from Lynda La Plante, the writer of the acclaimed "Prime Suspect" on PBS. A&E's "Framed" airs Sunday and Sept. 20 at 8 p.m., and its as good as anything you'll see on "Masterpiece Theater" this year.

The range and diversity of cable TV continues to grow.

* Comedy Central is launching a series featuring today's performers saluting stars of the past. At noon today, Jerry Seinfeld hosts "Seinfeld Pays Tribute to Abbott and Costello," a 10-hour marathon of "the Abbott and Costello Show."

* Wednesday at 8 p.m., A&E airs its "Civil War Journal," a continuing series on the Civil War that will have Danny Glover as host.

* CNN airs "A General's General: The Story of Colin Powell" and "The Arms Race on America's Streets" at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sept. 26.

* On Oct. 26, the Discovery Channel goes to Peru's Manu Biosphere Reserve for "Spirits of the Rainforest."

And that diversity should continue to grow in coming months, as cable adds not only new programs but also several new channels.

On Oct. 1, ESPN2, a younger version of ESPN, debuts. New channels from Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC are also on the way.

The new network cable channels are an unintended byproduct of the Cable TV Act.

The networks and others who owned broadcast TV stations initially demanded money from cable operators for permission to carry their signals under the retransmission consent provisions of the law. But cable operators refused to pay. Eventually, the networks and some station groups traded permission to air

the signals of their owned and operated stations for guaranteed carriage of new cable channels they would launch.

Michael Fuchs, the chairman of HBO, says, "I've been in programming at HBO for 17 years," Fuchs said. "We invented original programming in cable at HBO.

"I remember when the cable affiliates said to us, 'How could you ever make original programming to compare with the networks? Don't even try.'

"We never tried to be ABC, NBC or CBS. But I think they're going to try and be us now."

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