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The fast-growing cable-TV industry: two perspectives

Two of cable television's most articulate spokespersons made themselves available for interviews last month when I attended the National Cable Television Association Programming Conference and the Western Cable Television Show: Thomas E. Wheeler, president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), and Kathryn H. Creech, president of the recently formed Council for Cable Information (CCI).

Mr. Wheeler is the cable industry's most visible spokesman in Washington, playing an important role in shaping public policy toward cable television. Ms. Creech is the founding president of CCI, an organization funded this past June by some cable organizations to enhance consumer attitudes toward cable. Both seem to believe earnestly in their mission to show the value - present and future - of an industry that by the latest Nielsen figures is reaching 40.5 percent of the 83.8 million US television households. This represents remarkable growth when one considers that in 1970 there was only a 7.6 percent penetration by cable. A chat with Tom Wheeler

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When queried about the seeming demise of cultural programming on cable, Mr. Wheeler said: ''Culture was a buzzword at the beginning. The reason there was so much focus on cultural programming was that there is so little of it on commercial-broadcast television, so that became cable's big example for a while.

''But I think, despite the demise of CBS Cable, it is a mistake to say that arts is not making it on cable. The mistake CBS Cable, and too many of us, make is thinking you can make everything happen overnight. We have become a society of instantaneous gratification. What CBS Cable did was try to bring their ideas to perfection immediately, and it cost them more than they could afford to lose.

''The ARTS channel (Arts & Entertainment Channel as of Feb. 1) is evolving into a real business. Bravo, a pay cultural channel, is moving warily, but surely, into financial success.''

Public access - channels on basic cable systems free to be used by the public - doesn't seem to be talked about much by cable systems anymore. It used to be held up as a great promise for the future. Why the change?

''It has become clear to us that people don't buy cable in order to get public access. But once they've got cable, it's one of the benefits.

''The difficulty with public access now is that some cities require systems to put aside a number of channels for public access . . . and then nobody uses them. Huge blocks of channel capacity just lie there fallow.''

A lot has been said at cable meetings about the need for better service. Is that a major problem?

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''It is. There is no reason why cable systems cannot provide the kind of instant service that McDonald's provides for its consumers, the kind of home service which Sears provides for its customers. We can do it and, in order to continue our succesful growth pattern, we must improve our service to the consumer. That's the priority right now.''

I have spoken to cable planners who told me that the period between now and 1990 is a period of marking time, a time when cable systems would be providing entertainment and news as loss leaders until the time arrives when the real money in the form of two-way services is there. Meantime, consumers are paying part of the start-up costs by picking up part of the tab for installing the wires into their homes, wires which will later be used to sell them products. Does Wheeler agree with this theory?

''That's more a futurist dream than a businessman's vision. Certainly we are headed in that direction, but it's going to be a long while. Timing is very significant. Some of Warner-Amex's experiments with QUBE , while they are fun technology, may not yet be ready for commercial application.''

Will there be a place for PBS in the future?

''Yes. I believe in public broadcasting. Even if the wildest expectations of cable come true, there's always going to be a market for PBS. Commercial broadcasters have hidden behind PBS for so long by claiming that cultural broadcasting belongs on PBS. But they have done little to help PBS.''

Mightn't the same thing happen with cable?

''No. Commercial broadcasting is going for mass audiences only. We want every group we can get. We have enough channels for everybody. Don't forget that on many cable systems, the UHF PBS station is given a channel.''

What kind of cable penetration can we expect in the near future?

''We have around 40 percent penetration now; by 1985, we're going to be in 50 percent of all TV homes. That growth will come from building new systems. Then we're going to have nearly all of America wired, and we will go to every home and ask: 'How come you aren't subscribing?' '' Kathryn Creech's view

Ms. Creech and her new organization, the Council for Cable Information, are worried about the cable image.

''What we're finding out is that people who don't subscribe fear that TV will control their homes, turn them into zombies - sort of couch potatoes. They worry that they may be failing as parents if they get cable TV, that they'd be failing in their responsibility to read books, support theater and the arts, instead of watching TV. The image of TV and cable TV has become negative. And we want to turn that around.

''We want to show people that they don't have to be controlled by that box, that they have a chance to make decisions, to take charge. We want people to realize that cable should fit into the wonderful panoply of things that upscale people can do in their leisure time - like go to the health club, museum, shopping, skiing, boating, et cetera. . . .''

Will the CCI become a kind of Better Business Bureau for cable?

''No, we are geared to marketing, promotion, and public relations. All we are trying to do is create a better image for cable.''

Are cable subscribers more critical than other TV viewers?

''Yes. I think they are more critical because they are paying for it, so they have a right to be criticial. And I also think they are critical because they are confused about the product.

''We didn't do a good job of explaining cable before we went in and sold it. I think they sometimes expect the local cable system to be like the local telephone system, open 24 hours a day, a repairman in two hours. Well, we're just not up to that standard yet. We handed out a lot of fancy, glossy brochures and sometimes we forgot to explain the basics.''

So, your information won't be about specific services?

''Our ad campaign won't say, 'Go home and watch HBO.' But our campaign may show people expanding their knowledge, experiencing new things through cable. We want people to realize that their lives have somehow been expanded through cable.''

Wouldn't that also apply in great part to public broadcasting, a free service?

''Yes, it would. I think that PBS can certainly claim that it has expanded horizons with much of the programming it offers. But cable has more channels and more diversity. And we have a better chance of finding the match to the individual. PBS is like one channel on multichannel cable, satisfying one segment of the audience. We think cable has something for almost every segment of the audience.''

For a price, though.

''For a price, of course.''

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