Media watchers who think cable TV is the biggest thorn in the sides of ABC, CBS and NBC, think again: It's the independent commercial stations that are poised to better their network counterparts.
Local network affiliates, meanwhile, will schedule so much of their own programming that they, too, will start to resemble independents. Or so the independents and the suppliers of their programs apparently think.
Greg Nathanson, outgoing vice president and programmer at Los Angeles' KTLA, and Richard Frank, president of Motion Pictures and Television for Walt Disney Pictures, described just such a scenario of network decline Friday before an audience at the Western Cable Television Show in Anaheim.
"This country will no longer have three networks; it will have five o-&-o groups," Nathanson said, referring to the "owned-and-operated" stations normally associated with the three major networks. Peering no more than five years into the future, Nathanson predicted that the former Metromedia stations bought by Rupert Murdoch and the major-market stations that will be in the Tribune group, pending its purchase of KTLA, would compete on equal footing with the handful of stations that ABC, CBS and NBC each own outright.
Meanwhile, the three networks' affiliates "will knock unsuccessful affiliate shows off the air," Nathanson said, replacing them with programs of their own choosing.
If it does indeed happen, it "will come about by more and more product being made available to the local stations," said Frank, who made it clear that Disney and the other major studios are ready and willing to supply it.
Frank, after tossing an unabashed compliment in the direction of NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, seated at the opposite end of the dais, noted that while "it's great to sell a series order to a network . . . it's no longer essential to a studio for its lifeblood." Like Nathanson, Frank predicted that the networks will become mere "electronic program suppliers" that "will not schedule in the local markets."
Whether by coincidence or kindness, the California Cable Television Assn., which sponsored the three-day trade show that ended Friday, found in Tartikoff a panelist not overly fearful at this time of affiliate desertion.
NBC was the top-rated network during the just-ended November ratings "sweeps" period--its first such win since 1974--and it won the March sweeps as well.
"If you've got good programs--a 'Dynasty,' a '60 Minutes' or a 'Cosby'--you don't have any clearance problems," Tartikoff said, clearance being TV jargon for a station's committing to broadcasting a particular show.
Tartikoff said NBC's viewing levels are up 35% on Saturday night, a traditionally low viewing period. The other two networks are up on that night as well. The reason in both cases, he said, is the NBC show "The Golden Girls," which seemingly has put viewers back in the TV-viewing habit on that night.
With that line of reasoning, Tartikoff and his panelists were on fairly common ground--the notion that the delivery source is not nearly as important as the viewing material itself. "Viewers in all markets share common desire--they want good programs and they don't care where they get them," said Frank.
But it is the availability of those programs from so many sources that seems to be at the center of the entire television industry's concern. Those sources include pay-cable TV, represented on the panel by Jules Haimovitz, president of the entertainment division of Viacom International, and home videocassettes, in the person of Troy Cooper, executive vice president of National Video.
Though the panel, titled "Home TV: Competition for Viewing Time," was conducted good-naturedly and was perhaps even low-key, the presence of the five speakers sharply illustrated the various forces tugging at the viewer.
The exception was Frank, who was introduced as "the man with all the marbles" and perhaps for that reason, he was the most outspoken. He called pay TV a "me-too pale reflection of network TV" and exhorted its programmers to come up with something more creative.
None of this should have come as too much of a surprise to the cable industry. This was the third major gathering in two weeks during which the movie studios have made thinly veiled overtures to cable regarding the latter's need for their product, high-priced though it may be.
Only Wednesday, at the Western Show's keynote session, Ted Turner, soon-to-be owner of MGM, told cable operators to sell more ads so they'd have more revenue to invest in original programming.
At the recent Awards for Cable Excellence luncheon, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, gave cable programmers essentially the same message.
Frank, likewise, urged the cable audience to "take your money and invest in good programming."
If anyone would have to be characterized as "the enemy" on this particular panel, it would have been Cooper, whose videocassette industry has put the hardest-felt dent into all other forms of TV viewing.
But the videocassette business, he said, has somewhat larger concerns on its mind. "I'm not competing just for TV viewing hours but with leisure-time activities: sports, games, books, hobbies," he said.