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Turner Movie Channel Faces Tight Squeeze in Cable Systems : Television: New network airs vintage films 24 hours a day. It has a vault with more than 3,000 titles, but viewers won't see many classics at first.

May 15, 1994|From Associated Press

ATLANTA — Ted Turner's newest cable television network is a movie buff's dream that relatively few people initially will be able to see.

Turner Classic Movies, which was launched April 14 with a showing of "Gone With the Wind," is setting sail in uncertain cable waters. Many cable systems either have run out of space for new channels or are deferring programming decisions until federal regulatory questions are settled.

"It's very frustrating for the programmers, the cable companies, the subscribers," said Patty Mosteller, marketing vice president for Wometco Cable TV, which has nine systems in metropolitan Atlanta and is not carrying Turner Classic Movies.

Yet Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which has beaten big odds in the past, is pressing on with TCM, its sixth national network.

The new network is showing vintage flicks 24 hours a day with no commercials by tapping into Turner's vault of more than 3,000 movies as well as turning to licensed titles.

The movies have had a limited outlet in the past through the TBS Superstation and Turner Network Television, which show films and other programs.

"I think this service will be really the definitive classic movie service, and quite possibly one day the definitive movie service," said Brad Siegel, TCM's executive vice president and general manager.

Siegel, who came to Turner last year from Woodbury, N.Y.-based cable channel American Movie Classics, has plenty of choice titles with which to work, thanks to some major film library acquisitions by TBS over the past few years.

Among the well-known films Turner owns as a result of buying the MGM and pre-1948 Warner Bros. collections are "Casablanca," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Chinatown" and "Jailhouse Rock."

And considering the controversy Turner started by colorizing many old black-and-white Hollywood classics, movies shown on his new network primarily will be black-and-white originals.

Robert Osborne, author of "65 Years at the Oscars," serves as host on the new network, introducing each movie shown.

The movies on TCM are being packaged in a variety of ways, including tributes to stars and directors, and festivals highlighting musicals, mysteries and comedies.

Siegel acknowledged that some of that sounds a lot like American Movie Classics, but he said market research indicates there is demand for more movies on cable. A superior library and a fun, irreverent approach will make Turner Classic Movies stand out, he said.

That is, of course, if people get to see it.

There has been a profusion of new cable channels in the last few years, from 41 national channels in 1983 to 89 at the end of last year, outstripping the capacity of most systems. The typical cable system in this country can hold from 30 to 53 channels, according to the National Cable Television Assn.

The ballyhooed "digital compression" technology that can increase channel capacity into the hundreds still is a few years away for most people.

And cable operators are still awaiting final word on Federal Communications Commission regulations governing how much systems can charge consumers for various new services.

"It's been a very unsettling time in terms of knowing what you can and cannot do," said Jim O'Brien, president of Englewood, Colo.-based Jones Intercable Inc., which owns 50 cable systems across the country, none of which are picking up TCM.

"It's certainly much more challenging now than five years ago when TNT started with 17 million subscribers," Siegel said.

Turner faced a similar problem with the Cartoon Network. Launched in 1992, it recently hit 10 million subscribers.

Siegel would not disclose how many systems will be carrying TCM at its launch, but he said it would start with about 2 million subscribers.

ESPN, the nation's top cable channel, reaches 61.7 million subscribers. Cable News Network, Turner's biggest channel, has 61.1 million subscribers.

Siegel said TBS views the movie channel as a long-term proposition, and is confident that viewer demand will build by the time cable capacity is greater. Because there is no advertising on TCM, the network is more dependent than other Turner networks on cable subscriber fees.

"When we designed this business it was never intended to be a money maker in Year 1 or Year 2," Siegel said.

With an ample supply of movies on hand, and the prospect of fresh material available from recent studio purchases, Turner is in a strong position to keep a new network running in anticipation of expanded cable capacity, said John S. Reidy, media analyst at Smith Barney Shearson in New York.

"Obviously, they'd like to have 50 million (subscribers) on Day 1, but they have plenty of capacity to nurture this thing through," Reidy said. "Turner did not spend an inordinate amount of money to get this started. It's not rocket science to them--it's right up their alley."

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