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This Cable-TV Talent Works for Scale

THE most talked-about cable-TV show in Columbia, S.C., has no violence, no bad language, and very little action. But then again, the stars of the show don't wear any clothes.

Tropical fish seldom do.

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Every day for 14 hours, cable subscribers in Columbia can watch a tropical-fish tank in the comfort of their own homes - no cleaning, feeding, or upkeep required. Last spring, Cable Vision Industry (CVI) decided to broadcast an aquarium to fill air time until they could launch an all-science-fiction channel. But when "Fish TV" went off the air last fall, viewer response was overwhelming.

"People were calling in saying their cat just loves it," Sharon McGee of CVI says. Viewers wrote in. Small children seemed to enjoy watching the tank, as did seniors.

When marketing manager Hal Schlenger came up with the idea for Fish TV, he was looking for "something we thought people might enjoy once or twice." But when viewers demanded its reinstatement, Mr. Schlenger wasn't too surprised: The idea had worked before. Early television weather channels used to pan goldfish bowls. His updated version just used a larger tank, exotic fish, and live corals.

A pet store in West Columbia maintains two tanks for Fish TV, changing fish and coral to keep viewers interested. The star, a 55-gallon salt-water tank, has everything from Pacific blue tangs to shrimp to anemones.

Since the tank requires frequent cleaning (algae grows more quickly under the bright camera lights), a 29-gallon fresh-water tank serves as an understudy. The tanks are filmed at the cable channel's studio, but Crystal Reef Aquarium owner Ray Piazzola says there has been an increase in visitors to his store - some from out of state - hoping to see the celebrity fish.

Fish TV fan Mike Hawkins says that even though he owns an aquarium, he likes to see the different varieties of fish on television. "What you're getting," he says, "is a whole tank for the price of just the electric current to run your TV." To Mr. Hawkins, the channel is more than educational: "If we have a party, usually we'll have it on."

Because of viewer demand, Fish TV has now moved to another channel, sharing it with an arts program. It's on from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Music accompanies the broadcast (jazz, classical, or easy-listening), so many viewers leave the channel on for background sound as well as for the fish. At present, CVI plans to keep Fish TV on the air: "I don't think we'd dare move it now!" McGee says.

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