Arts on cable TV managing nicely, thank you

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Cultural cable is alive and kicking.

The demise of CBS Cable - some would call it an execution by corporate CBS - has been interpreted in many quarters as the beginning of the end for advertising-supported cultural cable. Doomsayers point out that instead of free cultural services, there is only Bravo, a pay-TV service clinging precariously to its fewer than 500,000 viewers.

But too many people are forgetting ARTS, the advertiser-supported basic cable service of Hearst/ABC Video Services. It has grown to a point where it is now reaching more than 8 million subscribers in over 1,700 systems nationwide, far ahead of the fewer-than-4-million subscriber peak of CBS Cable.

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ARTS shows healthy signs of surviving the downtrend in the economy as it carefully makes its way through the world's cultural heritage, tastefully selecting only what it can afford to air, what its audience wants to see. And perhaps even more important, choosing programs its own executives would like to watch.

When I chatted with Hearst/ABC president James Perkins and programming vice-president Mary Alice Dwyer the other day at their Fifth Avenue offices, I was struck by the fact that both executives seemed so downright proud of their programming. They did not feel called upon to explain, as commercial network executives often do, that they themselves would not watch much of their own lowest-common-denominator programming.

Mr. Perkins and Ms. Dwyer are responsible for Daytime as well as ARTS. Daytime, also advertiser-supported, is a woman's-magazine-format service which is carried on close to 600 cable systems reaching more than 7 million subscribers. Until now it has been on the air from 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays, but sometime next year it will be available from 1 to 9 p.m. ARTS airs nightly from 9 o'clock to midnight.

How is ARTS faring in the wake of CBS Cable's exit, after having lost around

''We are upset,'' Mr. Perkins said sadly, ''at the constant talk about whether or not ARTS will fold like CBS Cable. We are not financially distressed. We are maintaining our operating budgets, and our growth is progressing normally as planned. We are not trying to create an empire - we simply want a nice little niche, three hours a night, seven nights a week, of fine programming.''

Is ARTS getting enough advertising, and is it possible that in the future we may see advertising on pay-cable systems?

''Ad support is building,'' Mr. Perkins said. ''ARTS and Daytime together have now attracted around 50 advertisers, including such companies as General Foods and General Mills. As to whether or not a totally advertising-supported service can survive, I would not rule out the possibility of advertising and pay TV operating simultaneously.''

Why would advertisers use ARTS?

''First, there is a public appetite for our kind of programming in dance, drama, literature, art, humor, etc. Maybe not the same size audiences as for 'Laverne and Shirley,' but a sizable audience. And we attract the kind of audience the advertiser cannot reach elsewhere publicly - upscale, high-income, well-educated viewers who don't watch much regular television. And, in my opinion, Public Broadcasting is getting more and more like the commercial networks, trying to appeal to a broader and broader audience.''

How does Mr. Perkins respond to being called elitist?

''I like it. We and our sponsors are trying to reach an elite, not an elitist audience . . . a special audience for the performing and visual arts. But as many as 25 million people have expressed a preference for the kind of programs available on ARTS. That's a new definition of elitist.''

Which ARTS programs make Ms. Dwyer, the programming vice-president, most proud?

''We recently covered the 1982 International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss.,'' she said, ''using commentators like Dick Button, Jacques D'Amboise, and Marge Champion to comment on the performances, complete with instant replay like in the Olympics. We've done new plays such as Frank South's 'Rattlesnake in a Cooler,' directed by Robert Altman.''

A look at the December schedule reveals a wide variety of comparatively modest (in terms of expenditure) cultural events, ranging from a Royal Ballet performance of ''Cinderella'' to a dramatized version of Thoreau's ''Walden,'' an examination of Van Eyck's paintings, and a cello recital by Lynn Harrell.

According to Ms. Dwyer, Daytime has a marvelous plan for unique children's programming. ''We will continue to concentrate on the service and informational aspect of women's programming. But part of that could be programming designed for the mother and the preschool child to watch together. That's a service not being provided for the woman at home by anybody else. We hope to do it in the 8 to 10 a.m. hours.''

Mr. Perkins feels that some other cable services like the Turner Broadcasting System, USA, etc., are missing an extraordinary opportunity to provide different kinds of programming. ''They are chasing the broadcast networks. Some of them feel that for cable to survive, somehow the networks must die. We believe we can coexist. We are in the business of creating special programming for a special kind of viewer. There's nothing wrong in that. Let the networks continue to go after that 100 million mass audience. We will be quite content to reach that 25 million specialized audience.'' Modern Medicis

Mobil Corporation seems to aspire to play the role of the Medicis (and wants you to know it) as it funds contemporary culture such as ''Masterpiece Theater'' on PBS, along with a TV version, on the 61-station Mobil Showcase Network, of ''The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,'' beginning Jan. 10 and running four successive nights.

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