1994 may be marked by cable network boom

December 31, 1993|By Ken Parish Perkins | Ken Parish Perkins,Dallas Morning News

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.

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