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Cable TV Firms Will Expand Simulcasts

May 04, 1989|VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writer

For most English-language TV broadcasters, Cinco de Mayo means that yearly obligation to recognize their Latino viewers with a festive news feature or public service announcements.

Not HBO and Cinemax. Of course, there'll be a special program--a "Cinemax Sessions" benefit concert featuring consummate salsero and crossover screen star Ruben Blades.

But that's just icing from two of the nation's biggest cable TV programmers. The day that celebrates Mexico's historic defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla also launches the biggest phase of a combined HBO and Cinemax push to offer Spanish-language simulcasting to cable operators nationwide.

The sister cable programmers will boost their simulcasted movies from five or more a month to a dozen separate monthly movies, not including documentary specials, in-house HBO movie productions and live entertainment and sports events.

HBO's efforts to build Latino subscriber loyalty with simulcasting is just one of many continuing technical and programming innovations that English- and Spanish-language stations and networks are generating in response to the growing Latino market presence.

Some of the HBO programs on tap for simulcasting in May include such specials as "How to Raise a Drug Free Child" and films such as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "The Killing Fields." The network is also actively promoting the ring careers of up and coming boxers, such as Mexico's Julio Cesar Chavez, by scheduling and simulcasting major title fights.

HBO officials expect as many as 500 of their 12,400 affiliates with more than 20% Latino subscribers to request the simulcasting enhancement, a free service that allows subscribers with specially equipped TV sets to simultaneously watch the same program in either English or Spanish by merely pressing a button.

"But a lot of operators that have less than 20% are also very enthusiastic about simulcasting, so they may also request the service," added Concepion Lara, who heads HBO's Latino market campaign.

Whether viewed separately or together, no other local English-language broadcaster or networks--CBS, NBC or ABC--come close to HBO's and Cinemax's calculated campaign to woo Latino cable viewers, say friends and competitors of the Time Inc.-owned subsidiaries.

"We applaud what they're doing," said Starrett Berry, vice president and general manager of Galavision, a Spanish-language cable network with more than 300 affiliates nationwide. "These are not small budgets, so this is a big first step. No other (English-language) broadcaster is doing anything like this."

Still, Berry questioned whether simulcasting would attract new subscribers to HBO and Cinemax affiliates, given the lackluster response Galavision received when it aired several Spanish-dubbed Warner Bros. releases in 1981.

"I wonder how many people beyond what they already have will pick up the service," he asked, "or is this a move to develop long-term loyalty?"

The answer, said Alan M. Levy, HBO's director of corporate relations, is a bit of both, with emphasis on the latter. "The (simulcasting) option helps cable operators build an enormous amount of community good will," he said. "So its benefits may not directly lead to a new bulge in subscriptions, but it will generate some new subscribers."

More important, he said, is long-term customer satisfaction.

The U.S. Latino population, according to HBO research, is currently estimated at 25 million and growing nearly five times faster than the general population. About 47% of Latinos use Spanish as their primary language, according to the research.

Moreover, said HBO's Lara, the purchase of simulcaster-friendly stereo TV sets has already passed the point at which a new technology will be universally adopted.

Subscribers who own stereo TV sets with a second audio program channel and subscribe to a cable company that offers the simulcasting service need only flick a switch or button to the Spanish audio track. A special audio decoder, costing between $45 and $70, can be added to sets that do not have the switch.

These trends spurred HBO's five-year Latino plan, which was inaugurated in September.

The next step in what HBO calls its "controlled launch" strategy came in January, when HBO, and its sister, adult-oriented movie channel, Cinemax, offered a scaled-down simulcasting service to 20 cable operators in five big city markets, including Los Angeles.

Within weeks of simulcasting films such as "La Bamba," an additional 35 cable firms began clamoring for the service, Lara said. Since then, both cable programmers have provided the service to another 15 of their affiliates.

HBO and Cinemax have also doubled their original $1-million promotional budget and dubbed several in-house productions of documentaries and made-for-cable movies, such as "Dead Man Out," a prison drama starring Blades.

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