Westinghouse/CBS will launch its first cable channel by March, drawing on programming from the entertainment, news and sports divisions of its television networks and from its TV stations and affiliates. Named for CBS' eye-shaped logo, the channel, called Eye on People, will have a biographical bent, focusing on historical and contemporary personalities both in and out of the news.
"People have been describing it as a combination of People magazine, A&E, and the Learning, Discovery and History channels," said Donald Mitzner, head of Westinghouse's Group W Satellite, the cable division. "In medicine, you can talk about the doctors who worked on the cures or the victims of the disease. Can it run 'Gandhi,' 'Babe' and other biographical movies? Yes it can."
While the three other major TV networks have launched cable channels, CBS was prohibited from branching out of broadcasting by its previous owner, Laurence Tisch. Westinghouse Electric Corp. promised to reverse that strategy when it bought CBS earlier this year and took its first step last month with the purchase of TeleNoticias, a Spanish-language news channel. Westinghouse also owns 30% of Country Music Television and distributes the other country music channel controlled by Gaylord Entertainment, the Nashville Network, or TNN.
CBS said it has signed a programming alliance with Discovery Networks to supply the channel with content, although Mitzner said the relationship was still being defined.
The company, however, may have trouble getting cable systems to carry the new service. Cable systems in the U.S. have little or no space for new channels--one reason why ABC shelved a plan to launch a 24-hour news service earlier this year and News Corp. resorted to paying systems a fee for carriage.
CBS has not signed up any cable operators to carry the new channel, hoping to use upcoming negotiations for rights to retransmit the network's broadcast signal on cable to secure carriage.
CBS' three rivals used these so-called "retransmission consent" agreements three years ago to launch new channels. NBC created America's Talking, now MSNBC; ABC launched ESPN2; and Fox started fX. CBS, however, did not have an offering, and therefore got nothing in return for its signal.
"If CBS is launching with the expectation of getting immediate extensive coverage, given the reality of channel scarcity, that is not realistic," said Richard Aurelio, president of Time Warner's New York City cable group, which has 1 million subscribers. "In New York, we are channel-locked. There will be no increase in capacity here for two years."
Tele-Communications Inc. is throwing services off some of its systems, and has so far targeted E! Entertainment and VH-1 to make room for Fox News, in which it owns a stake. And Time Warner could face the same triage. The Federal Trade Commission is expected to require that Time Warner carry a second news channel as a condition of its approval, expected this week, of the purchase of Turner Broadcasting System, the owner of CNN.