For years, cable prophets have proclaimed the coming of an age when television would fill the needs of every viewer. Need some help spackling that wall? The Home Improvement Network is for you. Want a new way to get lint out of your pockets? Click on the Lint Plucking Tools Shopping Channel.
Well, the dawn of that glittering age of niche programming is not quite here. The future’s been put on hold while cable operators and government regulators squabble over who will foot the bill. In 1992 Congress, responding to consumer complaints, ordered cable systems to cut their rates. Cable operators, in response, said if they couldn’t charge customers sufficiently for upgrading their systems, they wouldn’t add new channels.
The result: Scores of new networks are sitting in an electronic holding pen. A few have had the muscle to bully onto the wires; fX debuted in June to 18 million homes, making it the largest cable start-up ever. ”But the big boys — CNN, ESPN, TBS — are on in [more than] 60 million homes,” says Larry Gerbrandt, VP and senior analyst at Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm. ”That is when a network begins to generate real serious cash flow.”
Here’s a look at some new and proposed channels fighting for viewers’ attention — and their chances of ever getting it.
America’s Talking Twenty-four hours of talk shows.
Status: Launched July 4 in 10 million homes.
Signature show: Pork, examining government waste.
Lowdown: What the cable industry calls a ”ransom channel.” In 1992 ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox sought payments from cable operators for the right to retransmit network programming over the wires. Instead, operators offered to carry a new cable channel from each network. Thus America’s Talking, NBC’s entry, was assured a sizable debut even if it presented round-the-clock Pork.
Booknet Author profiles, interviews, publishing news, reviews, and home shopping; E.L. Doctorow (The Waterworks) is a founder.
Status: Rough draft.
Signature show: As-yet-untitled program in which writers host readings of their works.
Lowdown: Analysts call it ”the network for people who don’t watch television.” But wouldn’t they rather read a book?
Classic Sports Network Not-so-instant replays of vintage sports events.
Signature show: The Main Event, a 1961 show featuring celebrities such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Sammy Davis Jr., commenting on boxing’s greatest bouts.
Lowdown: This one has clout — one partner is Liberty Media, a division of cable giant TCI.
fX Fox’s ransom channel mixes original programming and TV ”classics” (e.g., reruns of Hart to Hart and Wonder Woman).
Status: Its launch was so big, it knocked C-SPAN off many cable systems.
Signature show: Under Scrutiny With Jane Wallace, a Nightline-style program with the former CBS correspondent.
Lowdown: Must improve its generally lightweight fare to survive.
Game Show Network More than 41,000 old episodes of The Price Is Right, Family Feud, and MUCH, MUCH MORE!
Status: Waiting for the bonus round.
Signature show: Take your pick.
Lowdown: Survey says a classic genre. Promises to offer some form of interactivity. A strong entry.
GETv Gaming Entertainment Television, or the gambling network.
Status: Still shuffling the cards.
Signature show: Bingo Blast, an interactive bingo game.
Lowdown: Cable operators get a cut — so bet on this one. But expect vocal, anti-vice opposition.
The History Channel Documentaries, movies, and miniseries.
Status: Struggling to get systems signed up.
Signature show: The Crusades, hosted by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
Lowdown: Good programming, strong interest. So why can’t it get on the wire? A classic victim of cable regulation.
Home & Garden Television Network Gardening, home repairs, decorating, and the like.
Status: Will be in 7 million homes by its year-end debut.
Signature show: Spencer Christian’s Wine Cellar, in which the Good Morning America weatherman discusses fine vintages with celebs.
Lowdown: Owned by media giant Scripps Howard, whose string of independent television stations provided retransmission rights leverage with cable operators.
The Military Channel Movies, documentaries, old Defense Department clips, and paramilitary-gear home shopping.
Status: Plans to launch in December.
Signature show: Land War Chronicles.
Lowdown: A testosterone channel — appeals to young males, a group popular with advertisers. But has to overcome un-PC image.
Q2 QVC’s upscale sister.
Status: Testing in 8 million homes.
Signature show: Evolving Joe, hawking chic home accessories and clothing.
Lowdown: Although it’s nearly impossible to underestimate the profitability of home shopping, analysts say Q2 may cannibalize sales from QVC.
RecoveryNet Talk shows for recovering alcoholics, addicts, and life-threatening disease sufferers.
Status: Hoping to reach 8 million by next spring.
Signature show: The Morning Meeting with a different recovering group each weekday.
Lowdown: Misery loves company — just look at Oprah, Geraldo, etc.
Turner Classic Movies Some 400 classic movies a month, uninterrupted and commercial free.
Status: In more than 1 million homes.
Signature show: Gone With the Wind.
Lowdown: Ted Turner (CNN, TBS, TNT) is one of the biggest kids on the cable block. Yet cable systems are so crowded even he can’t get widespread carriage for this new, though hardly unique, network. Just goes to show you: These days it’s hard to get wired, even if you’re connected.