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RICK DU BROW

After Setback, It's Time for Smart Cable

April 06, 1993|RICK DU BROW

TV or not TV. . . .

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: Dumbest thing cable TV could do now is to try to find new ways to gouge customers after last week's government order to cut rates to viewers.

It was a badly needed course correction. Viewers have been infuriated by the constant rate increases in their monthly cable bills; nothing brings us angrier phone calls. And cable has gotten away with murder because most of its franchises are exclusive, with no competition to hold down the prices.

At the same time, basic, non-pay-TV cable packages--including CNN, ESPN, MTV, TNT, C-SPAN, Lifetime, USA, Nick at Nite, American Movie Classics, CNBC, Arts & Entertainment and the Discovery and Family channels (plus traditional stations)--have grown in popularity, with diverse programming and creative marketing, and are the best TV bargain around.

Until a one-two punch delivered last week by the Federal Communications Commission, cable increasingly had the struggling Big Three networks on the run, or at least looking over their shoulders. For the season to date, for instance, ABC, CBS and NBC have attracted about 60% of the viewing audience, while basic cable is up to 19%.

Cable still has the momentum because of growing dissatisfaction with the networks. But, in addition to ordering the rollback in cable rates, the FCC, in another decision, also opened the door for the networks to become owners of all their prime-time series, or as many as they can, and to share in rerun profits to a large degree--which could give the Big Three a possible new lease on life.

This could take various forms--from trying to continue in the traditional network mold, bolstered by tremendous new financial resources, or merging with Hollywood studios that make fortunes from reruns and would find this a logical fit.

The profits from reruns of a single series such as "Roseanne"--and even lesser hits--can easily surpass the annual earnings of a network.

Both FCC decisions, which on the surface have restored a kind of balance of power between cable and the networks, may have to clear some hurdles. And the FCC seems to be making it clear that cable will hit a stone wall if it tries to restructure its basic channel packages to charge for some of the outlets that we now get at no additional cost beside the single fee.

Cable operators might well look at what happens when viewers have to pay for individual channels. While basic cable gets 19% of the audience, pay TV attracts only 5%.

Pay-TV channels such as HBO are not affected by the FCC's order to cut rates, nor are pay-per-view outlets. But how many tiers of channels are you willing to pay for? How would viewers tolerate new cable gimmicks aimed at offsetting the rate cutbacks? The bet here is that they'd holler bloody murder.

Cable has tremendous good will, but this has been constantly offset by the price hikes, arbitrary switching around of channels, highly erratic telephone response, the varying quality of the lineups carried by different services--and all the other arrogant behavior that comes with having exclusive franchises.

What the leaders of cable have to do now is realize, first of all, that they are winning and are the first choice of a highly desirable and growing audience and that what is needed is the ingenuity that opens new paths of revenue rather than destroying the groundwork and good will that have brought them this far.

If cable does not act wisely, it will be a tremendous opportunity for the Big Three networks--in their current or future forms--to win back many of the viewers they have lost by showing some ingenuity of their own.

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AGGRESSIVE: Cable's highest-rated network, USA, this week starts advertising on the competition--the NBC and Fox networks, local stations and syndicated series. Says USA: "We are rapidly moving toward the world of 500 channels where consumers will have a more difficult time discerning one network from another. USA is taking this preemptive step to brand ourselves in consumers' minds."

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NIGHTWATCH: It's official--Ted Koppel's "Nightline" beat the "Tonight" show in the ratings for the first quarter of 1993.

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LAST CHANCE: "Cheers," which taped its May 20 finale last week, has one more shot this year to catch or surpass "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as the top Emmy-winning series of all time. Moore's program won 29 Emmys, and "Cheers," with Ted Danson, has 26, with nominations coming up this summer for the September awards telecast.

Nostalgia figures to be a factor, but which will it favor--"Moore" or "Cheers" in its farewell?

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NOMINEE: With political statements becoming all the rage on TV's awards shows, do you think anyone will ever stand up and urge support for "the socially abused, constantly battered, hard-working middle class"? Too square? Too bad.

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GREAT TIMING: Just the other day, KTTV-TV Channel 11 replaced anchor Chris Harris on its 10 p.m. news. Then on Thursday, KTTV won a Peabody broadcasting award for its gavel-to-gavel coverage of the first Rodney G. King trial. The anchor for that coverage? Chris Harris.

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BLOWOUT: How in is "The Simpsons"? Well, the May 13 season finale features the voices of Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, Hugh Hefner, Luke Perry and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They all rally around a clown whose network TV show is canceled.

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PRIORITIES: The return of "Brooklyn Bridge" Saturday is on my viewing list, but somehow I don't think I'll be looking in much more on CBS' new Shelley Long sitcom, "Good Advice."

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BEING THERE: "It's not my job."--Chico Rodriguez (Freddie Prinze) in "Chico and the Man."

Say good night, Gracie. . . .

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