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Cable Panel Sees Need For New Programming

March 19, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Is Hollywood milking the same cow too many times?

Or, as moderator and cable talk-show host Larry King said to a panel of entertainment industry heavyweights Tuesday, "How many times can I watch 'Max Dugan Returns' on an airplane?"

Some striking examples of the same movies and programs being sent to the same consumers over and over emerged during the three-day National Cable Television Assn. convention here:

--The Disney Channel ballyhooed the "exclusive premiere" of the classic animated film "Pinocchio" in September. But the same film will be available May 1 to viewers in areas served by Request Television, a four-month-old cable service that charges a fee equivalent to a movie-theater ticket for a one-time viewing of a hit film.

--Twentieth Century Fox's "Prizzi's Honor" is up for eight Academy Awards, and a big win at Monday night's Oscar presentation normally would bode well for a return engagement in theaters. But "Prizzi's Honor" recently became available on videocassette and was seen by others on The People's Choice, a pay-per-view service similar to Request. When Fox tried to get rebookings after nominations were announced, exhibitors "stayed away from it because it was out on cassette," Tom Sherak, president of domestic distribution for Fox, said when contacted at his Hollywood office.

--Ted Turner, asked to tell fellow cable operators if the growth of independent TV stations and their anticipated use of first-run Hollywood fare will have an effect on viewership, said: "Yes, that would tend to fractionate viewership."

--Home Box Office, which once gave its pay-cable subscribers their first crack at seeing relatively recent movies in their homes, now has access to those films after the home-video store and the pay-per-view services. As a result, box-office hits shown on HBO "don't do what they used to do" in terms of ratings, Michael Fuchs, the company's chief executive officer, said. "Our own movies do better than Hollywood movies."

Fuchs, Turner and other representatives of the cable, film and home-video industry who joined them on the "Cable '86" dais Tuesday, said that they can all coexist. But there will have to be differences in their styles of programming. Some of those differences are already becoming apparent.

Movies will continue to be youth-oriented, said Fox Senior Executive Vice President Jonathan Dolgen, because the typical moviegoer is between the ages of 16 and 25.

VideOcassette rental is "a library business," said John Malone, president of Tele-Communications, the nation's largest cable operator. Malone acknowledged that videocassettes offer a range of films it is "impractical" to deliver to homes electronically. Vestron Video Chairman Austin Furst emphasized that the low rental rate for cassettes and the availability of how-to and children's programs will ensure their popularity.

Pay-cable services such as HBO now see themselves as volume businesses. Fuchs noted that HBO offered 140 titles in March, making the average viewing fee 10 cents. (Fuchs failed to note, however, that viewing all 140 titles would have taken an average of eight to 10 hours a day.) HBO is also turning increasingly to made-for-pay original programming, as is its competitor Showtime/The Movie Channel.

And basic cable, Turner said, will be in 70% of American homes by 1991--up from about 50% now--and "will be more profitable than broadcast television" if "this industry will put some money into original programming."

Though Turner now has a vested interest in creating new programming--his control of MGM is expected to become official on Tuesday, he said--the quest for more and better shows is an oft-heard one in the cable business.

"The consumer is saying, 'Don't tell me where it comes from, just make it good,' " Federal Communications Chairman Mark Fowler told the cable crowd prior to the panel discussion.

One of the reasons for the new look to programming is that, with the wiring of America nearly complete, cable companies soon will have some cash on their hands that previously would have gone into hardware, Malone and other cable operators agree.

As to what form such new programming might take, even the talkative Turner refused to be pinned down following the panel session. "We're talking about a cooperative venture" is all he would say, suggesting an alliance between cable operators and production entities.

"Money is like fertilizer," said Malone in answer to the same question. "You spread a little on the ground and you don't know what will spring up. The cable industry is hoping for a couple of oak trees."

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