TV Ventures Signal Cracks in Mass Culture

HERE in Los Angeles, two harbingers of significant trends in American entertainment culture are in danger of passing as minor blips on a radar screen:

* A fifth TV network is planned for launch by Warner Bros., the Hollywood studio owned my media giant Time Warner Inc. Nationwide distribution will consist of both local TV stations and regional cable companies.

* CBS has agreed to create a new cable-television channel with Comcast Cablevision, the nation's third-largest cable operator.

Both moves are seen as growing evidence that broadcasting and entertainment companies are scurrying to reinvent themselves in response to eroding audiences for traditional network fare. They are hard evidence of major companies moving to merge broadcast and cable operations in collaborative endeavors that until now have been avoided in fierce competition between the two means of program delivery.

The moves are also seen as ways for TV and entertainment companies to compete in a burgeoning home-channel universe that stretches from 50 to 100 options in several major cities, with promises of 500-plus to come. Rapid changes in technology and programming economics are also behind the push for new entertainment hybrids, industry insiders say.

"By producing programming and owning networks that used to be beyond their reach, the studios are now reclaiming in the living room what they lost decades ago in the auditoriums of movie palaces," says Brian Stonehill, a professor of media studies at Pomona (Calif.) College, referring to the 1948 United States Supreme Court decision that made studios divest themselves of owning theaters.

Though key Warner officials were silent last week, industry reports say the new network's programming would be drawn from Warner's own considerable film and television libraries.

The project is expected to cost as much as $2 billion and is widely seen as a way to beat to the punch other companies considering the same idea - Paramount Communications, Chris Craft Industries, and home-shopping channel QVC Network.

Another factor said to be driving Warner's decision is concern that Fox and the traditional networks - ABC, NBC, and CBS - would be buying less and less studio-supplied programming as they start to produce their own shows. Warner Bros. has been the only major studio that does not have a cable channel or TV network to serve as an outlet for its programming.

The CBS move to create a new cable channel means that, like ABC, NBC, and Fox before it, CBS has agreed to form a cable network. Such moves have virtually halted threats that cable systems would not be able to carry network shows without large fees for the rights to such programming.

This increase in entertainment options in US homes contributes to a weakening of American popular culture as a shared, mass phenomenon, according to Paul Jerome Croce, a professor of history at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. Viewers can stay tuned exclusively to the subcultures they want - from Christian evangelical channels to rock music.

"From magazines to theme parks to movies, whole industries are popping up to divert us away from a single, unified culture," he says.

More viewing options at home mean that entertainment is becoming atomized, Mr. Stonehill adds. "As our choices of what to watch at home continue to accelerate, culture is becoming less a shared, communal, and public activity, and more solitary and unique."

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