57 Channels and Nothin’ On

journalism

TIME: Spectator Column – September 13, 1993

57 Channels and Nothin’ On

The Networks’ New Cable Services: Too Much, Too Late

CHILDREN PLAY GAMES of musical chairs. Teenagers play games of chicken. And adults make jury-rigged deals to launch expensive, redundant cable-TV channels. What else is one to make of the panic and quien-es-mas-macho giddiness variously gripping all of television’s big boys right now? It’s just the latest chapter in the ongoing struggle between the broadcasters — NBC, ABC, Fox, CBS, their hundreds of affiliate stations — and the cable-TV operators, but this time the frenzy is particularly intense and farcical, the ironies especially rich, the broadcasters wussier and the cable industry more bullying than usual.

Cable-TV operators are the robber barons of this end of the century, having built businesses by tuning in local broadcasters’ signals, then sending all ^ those programs out along their wires. That’s right: what they grab for free, they sell, in bulk, to you. A year ago, after fervid lobbying by the broadcast networks, Congress passed a law obliging the cable operators to start compensating the broadcasters — or drop the networks from the cable menus.

Thus began the game of chicken that has now reached its anxious finale. Congress set a deadline of next month for the deals to be worked out but, crucially, didn’t prescribe any form of compensation. While the broadcasters wanted cash, the cable companies, like squatters told to pay rent after years of living for free, refused, insisting on barter deals. The networks’ negotiating threat has been that if the cable companies didn’t pay, and couldn’t show Saturday Night Live or 60 Minutes anymore, their customers would rebel. The cables’ negotiating threat has been that if they stopped putting SNL and 60 Minutes on cable, the networks’audiences and revenues would instantly shrivel.

In quick succession over the past few months, Fox, then ABC, then NBC and finally CBS gave in to the hard-line, no-cash bargaining position of the big cable companies. And all four chose the same face-saving, if-you- can’t-beat-’em-join-’em terms of surrender: each TV network will start its own cable channel, which the cable operators will carry. We’ll let you keep stealing our popular big-budget programs, the networks are saying, as long as we can produce some iffy new programming that you’ll show and actually pay us for, pretty please.

Of course, the networks now have no choice but to sound chipper about their not utterly voluntary expansions into cable programming. ABC, which owns the successful cable sports channel ESPN, seems to have the most coherent idea: yet another sports channel, ESPN2, which is to start next month with a more gonzo sensibility and a younger, duuude-skewing audience than the original channel. The people at Fox have been talking about launching a cable channel practically since chairman Rupert Murdoch was an Australian, and last week, under the gun, they announced it: FX, with a very cool logo, is to go on the air next March with a vague, general-entertainment mandate and a lot of live emcees who will — this is the New Age, 21st century part — read viewers’ faxed messages on the air. Like ESPN with ESPN2, NBC will concoct a quasi- clone of its existing cable channel CNBC; last week the network named the amusingly ferocious Republican media genius Roger Ailes both to run CNBC and $ to create a new all-talk channel, to be called, unfortunately, America’s Talking.

Poor CBS, the network that led the fight to get the new cable-compensation law passed, is still scrambling for its place in the new order. According to sources familiar with the network’s negotiations, what had seemed two weeks ago a done deal — CBS wouldlaunch a cable public affairs channel, a highly unnecessary crossbreed of CNN and C-SPAN — seemed indanger of falling apart as TCI, the country’s biggest cable operator, was playing even harder ball than usual.

Even if CBS and the rest of the networks all get seats in this musical- chairs game, their chairs may collapse. Basic cable channels launched after the early ’80s golden age are by no means sure things. Comedy Central loses many millions of dollars a year, while CNBC is just breaking even. Each of these new channels could easily require an investment of $100 million or more.

“This is an industry in which weird stuff happens,” says Paine Webber analyst Alan Gottesman. Weirdness is fine. There are plenty of goofy-sounding new cable channels in the works — a channel devoted entirely to food, another devoted entirely to golf — but at least behind those are single-minded individuals pursuing their dreams of having more shows about pesto and four- irons on TV. The broadcast networks’ proposed channels, to the contrary, are not being launched mainly out of Ted Turnerian visionary determination, but defensively, hastily, by default.