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CABLE: NEW FRONTIER GROWS UP : It Must Now Turn to New Programming, Technologies to Secure Its Future

December 03, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Cable television, the former wundertech industry that gave the world music videos and all-night news, faces some pats on the back and some sharp pokes in the ribs this week.

Tonight, there will be self-congratulation as the Awards for Cable Excellence (ACE) are handed out in black-tie ceremonies at the Beverly Theatre that are scheduled for telecast on the West Coast next Monday.

For three days starting Wednesday, cable programmers and operators will hear some tough talk about "Meeting the Challenge" during the Western Cable Television Show at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Though different in their intent and in their overall level of exuberance, both events will reflect the same harsh reality: The years of blister-paced subscribership are over. The cable industry, facing a diminishing number of new geographical areas to conquer and a videocassette market that has taken a large bite out of its business, now must turn to new programming and new technologies to secure its future.

Thus, the ACE Awards this year for the first time are being presented under the aegis of the National Academy of Cable Programming, established nine months ago by the National Cable Television Assn. to celebrate cable TV's efforts in programming shows that can't be found in movie theaters, on videocassette or on commercial TV. These include concerts, sporting events and news specials; series such as Showtime's "Faerie Tale Theatre"; children's programming like the Disney Channel's "Welcome to Pooh Corner," and dramatic offerings like Home Box Office's made-for-pay movie "Sakharov" and the 30-part "Tenko" now on the Arts & Entertainment Network.

The cable industry this year has pumped enough money into tonight's event to nearly double the $300,000 or so Ted Turner's WTBS supplies to mount the event, which the Atlanta superstation also telecasts separately in prime time on the East and West coasts.

Meanwhile, at the three-day cable show, sponsored by the California Cable Television Assn., buzzwords will include "pay-per-view," "scrambling" and "addressability." All are technological weapons designed to stem the VCR encroachment and rid the system of non-paying users.

Not all of cable's problems are equally prevalent throughout the industry. Even as pay services such as HBO and Showtime wind up this year with little or no growth compared to 1984, basic services such as USA Network, ESPN and MTV--advertising-supported and available to cable subscribers at no extra charge--continue to show healthy increases in subscribership and ad revenues.

"Cable is no longer the generic thing it used to be," said industry analyst Paul Kagan. In contrast to the days of unbridled growth, changes now are reflected city to city, Kagan noted, with some systems still expanding while others "have reached a saturation level."

All of these developments reflect the maturing of a business that now is available to about 70% of American households. Cable has changed profoundly since the beginning of this decade, when HBO and Showtime/The Movie Channel promised a steady supply of fresh theatrical films, and basic services like the Cable Health Network offered a special-interest alternative to broadcasting that they called "narrowcasting."

Today, movies are available in videocassette at least six months in advance of being featured on pay cable. And the basic services in many cases have broadened their content to reach an expanded viewership.

Yet, even if cable has fallen short of some of its initial promise, it has had a far-reaching impact on television and pop culture.

MTV almost single-handedly turned the term video into a noun and rejuvenated a flagging music business. It is also credited with inspiring the hot colors and accelerated clip, first of 30-second commercials and then of "Miami Vice," followed by countless look- and sound-alikes on movies and TV.

Ted Turner's Cable News Network also influenced the networks. "After Turner did it, all three networks tried to do all-night news," said Greg Nathanson, vice president of programming for Wometco Broadcasting and scheduled speaker on the topic of "Competition for Viewing Time."

And pay cable, with its once virtually nonstop movie offerings, is credited with nudging ABC, CBS and NBC into heavy production of their own made-for-TV movies and miniseries. "I think the spread of pay TV made network TV better," said HBO's Seth Abraham, senior vice president for program operations and sports.

Abraham can even trace the turnaround to a single evening in February, 1984: The networks simultaneously aired "Chariots of Fire" (NBC), "Star Wars" (CBS) and "My Mother's Secret Life" (ABC). The latter show, a made-for-TV movie starring Loni Anderson, "buried" its feature-film competition, Abraham recalls. "It was virginal, it was fresh programing. For all the people who had pay TV, it was new."

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