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Sci-Fi Channel on the Launching Pad : Television: The channel begins Sept. 24 with a presentation of 'Star Wars.' No cable systems in Southern California have signed up.

September 05, 1992|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Prepare yourself for an invasion," a deep, computer-enhanced voice says in menacing tones over a black TV screen, which then erupts into brightly colored flashes of static. "It's coming for you."

These words, repeated over and over, are part of a two-hour package of ominous and sometimes menacing sounds and images that are now being fed to cable systems around the country to stir up interest in the Sci-Fi Channel--a new basic-cable service for futuristic fans of androids and aliens, outer dimensions, inner light, space travel and fantastic voyages.

After struggling for more than three years to get off the ground, the Sci-Fi Channel will launch Sept. 24 with a prime-time presentation of "Star Wars" in roughly 10 million of the nation's 56 million cable homes--the largest basic-cable launch since Ted Turner's successful TNT channel four years ago.

The Sci-Fi Channel hopes to conquer the cable world with a development schedule of 12 original movies a year, a theme-park agreement with Disney-MGM Studios, a publishing deal for a book series, a national fan club, a monthly magazine and extensive product licensing and merchandising ambitions.

One of the more unusual programming ideas on the channel is the FTL (Faster Than Light) news feed--daily TV news reports from the future written by science-fiction authors.

But the Sci-Fi Channel, which will be followed on Oct. 1 by the smaller launch of Turner's Cartoon Network, arrives at a challenging time in cable television, when ratings for many basic-cable networks are leveling off after a decade of growth and there is little advertiser demand for new ones.

No cable systems in Southern California have signed up for the Sci-Fi Channel yet. Although many have expressed interest, they primarily cite a lack of channel capacity. And they are turning it down despite the fact that the Sci-Fi Channel is literally giving its service away to charter members for periods of up to a year in order to attract business.

"We would love to be able to add it, and we are certainly considering it, but at this time we just have no room on our system for new channels," said Bob Helmuth, vice president of marketing for Cablevision Industries, which has 94,000 subscribers in the San Fernando Valley.

There's also a pending cable re-regulation bill that could place restrictions on how much money cable operators will be allowed to charge subscribers. That's making cable operators reluctant to add new basic services at this time because subscribers ultimately foot the bill for their cost. (Basic-cable channels are those that the customer receives for a flat monthly fee, such as CNN and ESPN, as opposed to premium channels such as HBO and Showtime that cost extra.)

To bring in advertisers, the Sci-Fi Channel is reportedly selling 30-second spots for around $100, compared to $1,000 to $3,000 for the larger basic-cable networks. Reaction to the Sci-Fi Channel has been mixed. Many cable operators and advertisers agree that there's an underserved audience of space junkies who they believe will flock to programming about science fiction, science fact, fantasy and horror. But others look at the starting schedule of rehashed, largely unsuccessful programming from ABC, CBS and NBC and simply call the effort cable overkill.

"As cable systems expand, programming expands to meet them, but that's not necessarily good," said Douglas Seay, senior vice president of national broadcast for the advertising agency Hal Riney & Associates. "It's like, how many options do you need? They say cable TV is an attempt to spread programming over 100 channels that's inadequate for 13 channels."

USA Networks--which bought the Sci-Fi Channel for a reported $100 million five months ago from founders Mitchell Rubenstein and Laurie S. Silvers of Boca Raton, Fla., who stayed on as vice chairmen--contends that the new channel is the next great cable success story.

There are more than 60 million science-fiction fans in the United States, as defined by the Sci-Fi Channel, based on their consumption of books, videos, TV series and movies. As the more enthusiastic fans caught wind of the fledgling cable service, they formed a Sci-Fi Channel Fan Alliance--or fan network--with 100 chapters now in place around the country.

"The time is right for this," said Tim Brooks, vice president of research for USA Networks. "We're in 1992 now, and the latter part of this decade, as we approach the new century--a new millennium--a lot of focus will be on space and the future, as it was 100 years ago. This channel is well positioned for that interest."

While most cable networks have two primary revenue streams--advertising and cable-operator fees--the Sci-Fi Channel will benefit strongly, Rubenstein believes, from merchandising.

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