Veteran TV producer Adrian Milne stared incredulously at the buzzing, blinking, flashing and smashing displays of the Western Cable Show in Anaheim Convention Center and confessed, "It's pretty terrifying. In Britain we're used to four channels."
The Englishman, in town to produce a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary on TV violence, had found himself immersed in the chaotic world of American cable TV, where a plethora of networks offers consumers everything from fundamentalist sermons to X-rated films, and where satellite technology allows viewers to check the weather in Baltimore 24 hours a day or purchase knock-offs of designer perfumes at the touch of a remote control button.
And here, at the 19th annual convention of the California Cable Television Assn. on Thursday, the smorgasbord of TV stations had come to life, with Mickey Mouse shaking hands on behalf of the Disney Channel, and in-the-flesh bunnies beckoning conventioneers to the wares of the Playboy Channel.
Other celebrities, including actress Marlee Matlin, comedian Robert Klein and weight-loss guru Richard Simmons, plugged various offerings.
While the networks tempted the estimated 8,000 conventioneers with pageantry, equipment manufacturers tried to draw attention through gee-whiz displays of forthcoming cable technology, with spaceships and satellite dishes setting the theme.
Behind the balloons and neon lights that decorated the exhibitors' booths was, of course, the business side of the business; the real targets of the lively displays were the local cable operators, who buy programs from networks and equipment from manufacturers.
"Every time a subscriber hits a button, you hear a cash register ring!" was the siren song of Jerrold's World of Impulse, whose own marketing savvy had placed a life-size, flying-saucer-shaped booth at the exhibit floor's entrance.
Conventioneers who climbed aboard the World of Impulse could watch a video explain new technologies that allow viewers to buy products from home shopping stations by pressing a button on a remote control, rather than forcing them to dial a telephone number.
"The buy rate is six times greater in the present format than when the subscriber has to call," said a Jerrold's representative, Jim Davis.
It was displays like this that Spencer R. Kaitz, California Cable president, called "the crucible that drives our industry forward." Where the industry is going, however, depends on one's perspective.
Sitting beneath a "Devilbusters" poster promising "programming that will bless the Hell out of you!" Trinity Broadcasting Network's Stan Hollow criticized the sexually explicit stations that nestle against his religious programs on the TV dial.
"As a Christian, I don't agree with a lot of what's going on the other networks," Hollow said. But he conceded the adult networks' right to broadcast: "I suppose I'd want to extend to every American the same rights of free speech that we have."
Lee Rosenthal, of the brand-new Tuxxedo Network, quickly agreed, saying "we have to defend the First Amendment as best we can."
Tuxxedo broadcasts adult movies on a pay-per-view basis, he said, with most of its audience coming from business people on the road.
"You can imagine why it makes sense for motels," Rosenthal said. "It keeps people in the motel room instead of--all I know is a Yiddish word for it--finagling.
"It's really safe sex, isn't it?" he said.
Cable executives insisted that their medium has other social benefits as well.
The all-documentary Discovery Channel has given struggling independent film makers a new venue for their work, said the firm's Denise Baddour.
She said it has also contributed to international understanding: in addition to nature programs and a special on the homeless, Discovery recently aired 66 hours of Soviet television, allowing Americans to sample Russian cartoons and exercise shows.
Still, while cable has broadcast such noteworthy events as congressional hearings and Broadway plays, it has also brought into homes 24-hour-a-day shopping networks, no-money-down real estate seminars and program-length commercials for hair tonics.
And privately, some executives say that a viewer could overdose on their product.
One local cable system operator said the customers he hates "are the ones who call and say, 'the cable just went out--what am I going to do with the kids?' I wish I could say to those people, maybe if you took the time to read with your kids, to take a walk with them, you wouldn't have these problems."