Discovery plans to launch five new channels in '96 Decision signals optimism on industry

November 29, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Discovery Communications Inc., the Bethesda-based parent of the Discovery Channel, will launch five new cable channels in 1996 -- a decisive expression of optimism about prospects for the cable industry.

Jim Boyle, the company's vice president for communications, said Discovery will roll out three specialized channels in January. One would carry programs on nature while another would be devoted to children's programming. He said a third would be a lifestyle or "how-to" channel.

Mr. Boyle said Discovery envisions these channels as additions to cable systems' "expanded basic" program packages, typically the most popular level of service. Another two, which would focus on history and science, will be added in mid-1996 as pay-per-view or premium offerings, he said.

The channels have not yet been named because the company was not planning an announcement so soon, Mr. Boyle said, noting that the news was first reported in the trade journal Multichannel News.

Discovery's decision is a powerful indicator of bullishness at the top levels of the cable industry.

The company, which also produces the Learning Channel, is co-owned by Liberty Media, a division of John Malone's Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable operator. Other investors include Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse Communications, giving Discovery three large operators that will undoubtedly be receptive to the new channels.

The cable industry had been in the doldrums since the passage of the Cable Act of 1992, which imposed price regulation on the industry. But a recent relaxation in the Federal Communications Commission's rules for adding new channels has given the industry a boost, said Jim Ewalt, executive vice president of the Cable Telecommunications Association.

Mr. Ewalt said that except for Encore's recent decision to add six or seven new channels, Discovery's announcement was the largest expansion he has seen by a single cable programmer.

"People think there's money in providing program-ming product to the cable operators," Mr. Ewalt said.

Mr. Boyle said Discovery's decision was largely based on its confidence that a sweeping telecommunications reform bill pending in Congress will pass. The bill, which would lift most cable regulation, will encourage cable systems to add new channel capacity, he said.

"A lot of systems are just on hold because they can't get financing because of the uncertainty that's hanging over the telecommunications industry," Mr. Boyle said.

The Discovery spokesman said the company is also betting on advances in digital technology to increase cable system capacity.

"There will be -- even though everyone's been talking about it for three years -- an explosion in channel capacity," he said.

In a separate development, Discovery said Judith McHale has been promoted to president and chief operating officer.

In addition, Discovery named Gregory Moyer president and chief editorial and creative officer.

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