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Cable Comedy--Will HBO Have the Last Laugh? : Television: The 24-hour Comedy Channel premieres tonight, but Viacom has plans to launch its own comedy channel, HA!, in the spring.

November 15, 1989|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Did you hear the one about the two cable comedy channels? They're trying to beat each other to the punch-line.

Home Box Office tonight launches the Comedy Channel, the first 24-hour comedy channel on cable TV. But not the last.

Tommy Sledge, a comedian who specializes in 1940s-style detective shtick, will join other newcomer comedy hosts Rachel Sweet, Joel Hodgson, Allen Havey and the trio of Steve Higgins, Dave Higgins and Dave (Gruber) Allen from the hip environs of a comedy writers' "newsroom" in a Manhattan studio. Like radio disc jockeys, or MTV veejays, with scripted material, the hosts will do comedy in between the Comedy Channel programming, which will feature brief comedy clips, plus some full-length movies.

HBO--which has been a leader in comedy specials on pay-TV--is betting millions (estimates run as high as an investment of $75 million before any profits might be seen) on the power of comedy to attract viewers to basic cable, an advertiser-supported service that is offered to cable-TV subscribers at no additional cost beyond their monthly hookup charge.

"Funny is money," declares HBO Chairman Michael J. Fuchs, "and we will do what we have to do to be successful."

That means putting on an ambitious creative venture that not many viewers, at least initially, will be able to see. Although HBO executives say the Comedy Channel has commitments from cable operators that will make the service available to some 10 million viewers sometime during the next year, the new service is launching tonight with a maximum potential audience of only 4.3 million homes. In the Los Angeles area, it is available only on cable systems in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Marina del Rey and Calabasas.

The 4.3 million figure--far below the 25-30 million subscribers needed to break even on such a cable venture--makes the launch of the Comedy Channel one of the smallest in terms of potential viewers in recent years in the cable business.

What is fueling HBO's rush to launch is the fact that, in another Manhattan office, Viacom--the owner of MTV Networks and HBO's pay-TV competitors, Showtime and the Movie Channel--is preparing a rival comedy channel. Announced two days after HBO announced its plans for TCC, Viacom's MTV Networks plans to launch HA! The TV Comedy Network on April 1.

HBO executives say that they are launching now to get a toe-hold in what promises to be the last great programming battle in basic cable.

"We don't think it's critical that we have (only) 4.3 million subscribers on Nov. 15," says Comedy Channel President Richard Beahrs, who estimates that the service will have a base of 6 million subscribers as systems sign on between now and Jan. 1. "The important thing is to get on out there with a cable service that people like."

Ironically, while HBO's concept owes something to the fast-paced style of MTV, HA! TV will emphasize longer-form programming, combining vintage network sitcoms with original programming created for the channel.

HA! TV has hired former NBC president Fred Silverman as a consultant and has announced development deals with MTM Enterprises, Ron Howard's Imagine Films Entertainment and other suppliers to create original programming.

"We're going full-speed ahead," says HA! TV chairman Tom Freston, who said that MTV had been working on a comedy channel for some time but moved up its announcement after HBO announced its plans for the Comedy Channel.

Freston, who says that HA! has commitments from cable systems that reach 2 million subscribers, predicts that HA! TV will have 10 million potential viewers at launch.

HA! TV has been offering equity in its comedy service to cable operators. HBO had initially said it would not offer equity, but may be backing away from that position. Asked whether HBO would offer equity, Fuchs said in an interview that the company "will do what we have to do" to make TCC succeed.

If HBO makes a significant splash with the Comedy Channel, both with critics and cable viewers, that could have an impact on HA! TV. In fact, Fuchs went so far as to speculate that HA! TV might not launch if the Comedy Channel gets enough of a head start, instead folding the planned programming into another of its existing channels.

"We have a channel out there for people to look at," Fuchs said. "They have a deal channel."

"HBO continues to tell people we're not serious," Freston responded. "I can assure you we're serious."

One of the problems facing both channels is the changing nature of the cable TV business. In the old days, cable operators were eager for programming that would sell cable-TV to viewers. Today, channel space is at a premium on many systems, although capacity will increase with rebuilding in the years ahead. In the case of the two competing comedy channels, then, cable operators can afford to wait.

"Cable operators are, in effect, getting a free look at the Comedy Channel," said Larry Gerbrandt, a leading analyst of the cable business with Paul Kagan Associates. "They're also not eager to make a choice between two leading suppliers of programming."

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