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Gulf War Brings Cable TV Few New Subscribers : Media: Operators blame the slumping economy and competition from local independent stations, which have been running portions of CNN broadcasts.

January 23, 1991|ANNE MICHAUD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Orange County cable television operators said Tuesday that they have seen only a slight increase in new subscriptions because of viewer interest in Cable News Network's round-the-clock coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

Officials of local cable companies said new sign-ups have probably been lower because of the slumping economy and because of competition from local independent stations, which have been running portions of CNN broadcasts for those who do not have cable. The officials also said that a large number of Orange County residents are already cable subscribers.

Only one company, Paragon Cable, which serves north coastal Orange County, reported a higher than usual increase in subscriptions. Santry Elmer, a company spokesman, said sales last week were up 20% over the previous week.

"Ninety percent of the requests have been to access CNN," Elmer said.

Nationally, many cable operators have reported that the war has brought them a windfall.

"I'm quite ambivalent, have mixed feelings about this," said Bill Farmer, general manager of Capitol Cablevision Co. in Charleston, W. Va. "We like getting new business, but I don't like to get business because of a war situation."

Capitol is one of several cable systems that reported an increase in calls for hookups after war broke out last week between a U.S.-led coalition of nations and Iraq. CNN has been devoting virtually all of its programming to the war since the first allied missiles hit Iraq last Wednesday.

"By 1 o'clock in the afternoon the day after the war started, we had 70 calls from new customers and about five calls from customers who had notified us they wished to disconnect but now didn't want to do that," said Romaine Pacheco, vice president for division affairs at Mile Hi Cablevision in Denver.

Residential, commercial and government customers were all seeking a quick CNN hookup.

"We got a panic call from the state Capitol . . . asking us to run cable to a number of offices so they could watch CNN," said Ted Stuart, general manager of Heritage Cablevision in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are looking into whether they can get CNN telecasts in their buildings after several traders there requested it.

Orange County may differ from the rest of the nation because market penetration--that is, the ratio of cable-subscribing households to the number that don't subscribe--is already high, said Dave Limebrook, director of sales and marketing for Dimension Cable, which is owned by Times Mirror Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times. Limebrook said the company serves 76% of the homes in its South Orange County service area.

"Apprehension about the economy may be dampening people's interest in subscribing, in spending some of their discretionary dollars," said Don Granger, regional vice president of Multivision Cable in Anaheim. Granger said that his service department has taken more calls this week from people interested in watching CNN but that the firm is not making many more sales.

Alan Kraslow, area marketing director for Cablevision of Orange, said he has had a "smattering" increase of phone calls this week over last, but he attributed that to a special offer for new subscribers.

U.S. residents who are not cable subscribers can watch CNN news on any of the 230 independent and network-affiliated stations across the country. These stations have signed for portions of CNN's programming. Four such stations reach Orange County: KTLA Channel 5, KCAL Channel 9, KTTV Channel 11 and KCOP Channel 13.

Because of that, people have less incentive to pay for cable, said Jim Petro, regional manager for Copley/Colony Cablevision in Newport Beach. Petro emphasized, however, that this is no time to quibble about that. "The country's got a problem right now, and it's of interest to everyone," he said. "I'm not sure this news should be withheld from anyone."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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