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Cable TV, after start-up losses, begins to get profits into focus

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In his roomy Rockefeller Plaza office, Drew Lewis rocks back in his comfortable leather chair, tucks his feet up, and talks plainly about losses at Warner Amex Cable Communications, where he is chairman.

Mr. Lewis, former secretary of transportation in the Reagan administration, heads a company that builds and operates cable television systems - and that lost $47 million in 1982. Projected losses for last year float somewhere around

But in a phone interview from his Englewood, Colo., office another cable chairman, Trygve Myhren, said his company's performance is ''getting better every year.'' Revenues and net income are ''up sharply,'' says Mr. Myhren, who heads American Television & Communications (ATC), a Time Inc. subsidiary.

Warner Amex and ATC are in the same business - only ATC did not lock itself into uneconomic franchises with major cities, while Warner Amex bid aggressively for them and is now trying to renegotiate contracts in Dallas and Milwaukee.

Still, despite current problems, the cable-TV industry has managed to pull itself up from a $200 million loss in 1982 to an estimated profitability of $400 million last year. Construction costs have peaked, interest rates are down, profit margins are strengthening, and subscriber numbers and revenues look good. (Cable operators such as Warner Amex and ATC should be differentiated from the dozens of cable programmers such as Home Box Office, Music Television, Cable News Network.)

''Underneath the ripples, there's strong growth. The cable system by and large is a healthy animal,'' comments Charles Dolan, the sandy-haired chairman of Cablevision Systems Corporation, based on Long Island.

But Mr. Myhren says the business can't be looked at as a monolith: ''It's a two-tiered business. A growing number of companies are doing very well and expect to do better, while another group has overextended itself in the major markets.''

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