CBS cable debuts, but not here

March 31, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

CBS will finally get in the cable business today with its launch of a promising new channel, CBS Eye On People. The problem with this Eye, though, is that very few will be able to see it -- at least for the immediate future.

The channel, which is self-described as "entertainment and information programming focusing on people and personalities," has great brand identity going in, thanks to CBS News personalities ranging from Charles Kuralt and Mike Wallace to Mark McEwen and Paula Zahn. With CBS News providing 70 percent of the programming from archives and new reports, Eye On People resembles MSNBC, which launched with a bang in July thanks to the NBC News archives and the presence of Jane Pauley and Brian Williams.

But, unlike MSNBC, which debuted on all of the NBC-controlled cable outlets that previously carried the America's Talking channel for an instant audience of 22.5 million homes, CBS Eye On People will be in only 2 million homes as of today. None of those homes is in the Baltimore-Washington viewing area, according to Lloyd Werner, executive vice president for CBS Cable.

Werner said he hoped to have Eye On People on the TCI and Comcast cable systems in the area by the end of the year. But, as of now, he has no commitments. As for satellite dish owners, Eye On People will not be available to them until June, Werner said.

The problem is distribution. Just as location is said to be everything in real estate, in television, these days, distribution is what counts. And distribution is what CBS lacks.

There are a number of reasons for that, but the main one is that former CEO Laurence Tisch was too busy gutting CBS of its assets in the late 1980s and 1990s to position the network for the future. Thus, while the other networks moved to line up cable distribution for the day when they would launch a cable channel, CBS was left behind.

Westinghouse, which took over CBS in 1995, now has to scratch and claw to get Eye On People on any cable systems, unless it wants to start buying its way on, as Rupert Murdoch is doing in some cases with his Fox News Channel. At this point, Westinghouse does not want to pay a per-subscriber fee to cable operators, which means it could be a long time before viewers here see the CBS Eye on TCI or Comcast.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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