NEW YORK — After years of competing for franchises to wire the nation's cities for cable, the cable TV industry now finds itself united in pursuit of a larger share of the American home-viewing audience.
"We're just coming out of a stage in which the industry has been made up of feuding warlords," said John C. Malone, president of Tele-Communications Inc., at the first formal gathering this week of the National Academy of Cable Programming. "But now, we are coming together with common interests, because the economic incentives are so great."
The academy was formed last year by the National Cable Television Assn. "to promote excellence in cable television programming." About 1,000 cable operators and cable network and production company executives, attending Wednesday's luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria, heard four of their highly placed colleagues discuss the prospects for cable in the fast-changing television marketplace.
Since 76% of the nation's TV households now have available cable systems, the industry is turning its attention from hardware to programming.
"Our ultimate success will depend on the value of our programming to the (television) audience," said Frederick Pierce, former chief executive of ABC Inc., citing increased competition for audiences among the three major television networks, independent television stations, and free and pay-per-view cable.
"The lines between broadcast and cable television programming are blurring," said Terrence Elkes, president, Viacom International. Elkes noted the emergence of "a new kind of TV viewer who thinks he needs the networks, cable, and his VCR." The television audience today is "fickle, fragmented and not likely to make distinctions" in the way in which their programing is delivered into the home, he said.
In fact, the three commercial broadcast networks' share of audience has slipped in the last decade from roughly 90% to 76%, with cable and independent stations gobbling up the difference. In homes that subscribe to cable--nearly half the nation's 86 million TV households--viewers spend more than a third of their viewing time tuned to a cable channel, according to recent statistics provided by media consulting firm Paul Kagan Associates.
Panelists said that the concentration on the business end of the industry that consumed so much of its time in the initial years of growth should be shifted to the audience, and that substantial funds should even be "risked" to capture more of their attention. One scenario calls for cable operators to levy a subscriber surcharge to generate part of an estimated $400 million annually to fund production of a full slate of original shows.
"The industry is ready, willing and able to direct the substantial amount of cash and commitment to programming that increases the number of viewers, because this in turn will increase the number of advertisers," Malone said.
"There will always be enough advertising dollars for cable, as well as for the competition, so long as cable produces good programing concepts," added the fourth member of Wednesday's panel, Marvin Koslow, senior vice president, marketing, the Bristol-Myers Co.
However, more than once Wednesday, the view was expressed that the role of the consumer, or TV viewer, will overshadow the role played by advertisers in the uncertain future economy.
"We need advertisers, because in the cable industry we need a locomotive to help pull the train," said Malone. "But we need as many subscribers as possible, and we should now be looking at what makes best programming sense for our audiences, locally and nationally. This is the thrust of the industry."