Los Angeles' KCET-TV launched a public offensive Tuesday in a bitter dispute with area cable-television systems over a 7-month-old plan that, the public station says, threatens to reduce the size of its audience and its income dramatically.
But the cable industry isn't taking KCET's fusillade lying down. It says Channel 28's claims are "blatantly untrue" and misleading to its viewers.
At the core of the argument is what KCET officials call a "frightening trend" among Southern California cable systems to boost ratings of advertising-supported national program services such as Cable News Network and ESPN by moving them to low-numbered channels.
The moves, KCET says, are forcing it to less desirable high-numbered channels and could result in a loss of more than one-third of its viewers and subscribers.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 28, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 7 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
KCET-TV Executive Vice President Donald G. Youpa was misidentified in a caption in Wednesday's Calendar.
"We've tried everything we can for several months to prevent this," William Kobin, KCET president, said at a morning news conference at the station's Hollywood studio. "We feel compelled, as a last resort, to crank up a public campaign."
On Tuesday night, the station began airing 30- to 50-second on-air pleas by Kobin and other community leaders highlighting the "urgent problem that may cause KCET to lose many viewers and vital subscriber support."
The messages, which the station says it will air during every program break for at least the next week, ask viewers to contact their cable systems and their city councils to protest the channel moves. The messages say that the cable industry is moving KCET from low channels 6 and 10, for example, to higher numbers where fewer viewers are likely to find the station.
"We regret having to do this," Kobin said, "but we feel we've been backed into a corner."
"That is so misleading and so untrue," countered Margaret Durborow, vice president of United Cable Television of Los Angeles, in a telephone interview. Durborow is past chairman of the cable industry group that proposed the channel switches last year as an effort to create uniform cable channel numbers throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Durborow said that fewer than 30% of the 1.4 million cable households in the Los Angeles television market receive KCET on the low-numbered channels.
Systems serving more than half of the cable homes have already adopted the new channel plan, she said, and more than 70% will have switched by the end of the year. That will leave KCET on low channels only in some of the area's oldest cable systems, such as the Century Cable system (formerly Group W) in the Hollywood Hills, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.
"Channel 28, it appears to me, hasn't been harmed very much," she said.
The Southern California Cable Television Marketing Council's 75 member systems plan to move cable programmers to lower-numbered channels, Durborow said, while seeing that "every broadcast channel goes on its (over-the-air) channel number. That seemed logical to us."
The council's plan puts KCET on cable channel 28, its over-the-air channel number, between the Arts & Entertainment network on channel 27 and the Discovery Channel on channel 29. The plan puts ESPN, the sports network, on channel 6, USA Network on channel 8, CNN on channel 10 and MTV on 12.
But KCET's Kobin said the cable industry's moves will hurt public television because viewers, accustomed to watching KCET on a lower channel number, will be less likely to see KCET as they scan through the channels of their cable decoders.
Citing the cable industry's own statistics, Kobin said that viewership tends to be highest on the low channels and that moves from high channels to lower ones often result in 30%-45% ratings increases.
If viewership goes up with lower channel numbers, Kobin reasoned, viewership can be expected to go down if KCET is on a higher channel.
"This is not all black-and-white, not all good-and-bad," Kobin said. "On balance, it seems disadvantageous."
"If they're assuming a 30%-45% loss (of viewers)," responded Durborow, "then they're saying their programming is not strong enough to take viewers with them."
Kobin noted that KCET, alone among the nation's major public-TV stations, is a UHF station that, without cable, has neither the signal reach nor the transmission quality of lower-numbered VHF stations on channels 2-13.
Cable, Kobin said, has given KCET "parity" with VHF stations and now the cable industry is ready to take that away.
"There is a certain ethical obligation to publicly supported, noncommercial television," he said.
KCET is on 152 cable systems from San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield in Central California to San Diego on the Mexican border. Forty-three percent of its subscribers view the station on cable, Kobin said.
In addition to the on-air messages, the station plans to contact 100,000 subscribers and 5,000 community groups urging them to write letters to cable systems and city governments protesting the channel switches.
Said the cable council's Durborow: "I've already got my response in the word processor."