TV trends: moving into the gray area of advertised cable
New York — If you are in the market for a set of $1,000 golf clubs, CBS Cable wants you. Free pop culture with crossover personalities and lots of "upscale" commercials is what you can expect on CBS Cable, according to Robert E. Shay, vice-president and general manager of the new CBS subsidiary which plans to debut in mid-1981 with 1.5 million subscribers.
I chatted with Mr. Shay in his Avenue of the Americas office, several city blocks downtown (perhaps symbolically) from the CBS "Black Rock" main building. He seems confident of the future of culture on cable . . . but with some variations from straight so-called "elitist" programming. He is ambivalent about some of the more popular entertainment which PBS is airing these days in its desperate attempt to escape the "elitist" designation. "Actually," he told me, "some of the things they are doing now are what we will be doing."
Mr. Shay's plan for CBS Cable (and you must remember that everything planned today is still subject to change tomorrow, including Mr. Shay himself) is focused around a four-hour program which will be repeated twice, then distributed to basic cable systems free via satellite. The four-hour culture package is expected to be aired at 3 p.m., 7 p.m., and 11 p.m. -- early prime time, mid prime time, and late prime time. Cable systems will not pay for the service, so that they will be able to offer it free to subscribers -- in fact, some observers predict that, before long, because of limited available channels and great competition for available ones, CBS may be forced to pay cable systems to take its free service, which will be supported entirely by advertisers, "upscale advertisers," according to Mr. Shay.
"We found in our initial foray into the advertising community that there are many advertisers out there who wish their product to be exposed in an environment that has a quality edge," he told me. And early research has revealed that cable subscribers, on the whole, command much higher incomes than their "poor cousins" who cannot afford the monthly fee. "We had a meeting with one advertiser, for instance, and he said, 'The service you are talking about would be perfect for selling our golf clubs -- at $1,000 a set.' There's just no way that commercial television can be as efficient an advertising medium as our 1 or 2 million subscribers, of whom a much greater percentage would be the ones upscale advertisers are after."
Just how much advertising will there be?
"We will be appealing to the kind of advertisers who have historically participated in PBS.The unfortunate thing about a PBS offer is that an advertiser can only get a 14-second credit at the end of the program.On CBS Cable we are doing five minutes per hour of nonprogram [advertising] material with a station break that we call intermission. The advertisers that we are seeking are very attuned to not wanting their commercial message put on in any way that will interrupt programming."
But with five minutes of commercials plus more commercials during station breaks, it appears to me that CBS Cable will soon be guilty of the same rampant commercialism which is one of the most objectionable aspects of commercial over-the-air TV in America today. So, if CBS Cable programming will, in many respects, emulate the best of PBS programming, might it not be better -- and less expensive -- for the public to insist upon PBS with advertising?
He shrugs. "It certainly might be one of the areas PBS should be looking into. But we are not doing just PBS-type programming -- we are in that middle ground between the highbrow PBS and the more mass appeal commercial television."
Is there something in commerical TV which falls into that category now?
"Sure. CBS's annual Kennedy Center show which pays tribute to American creative artists, the Beverly Sills farewell show, the Young People's Sunday afternoon concerts."
What are some of the shows actually taped or in the planning stages?
"We are doing all nine Beethoven symphonies with Leonard Bernstein conducting , taped in productions throughout Europe. Our first original dance program features the best of Twyla Tharp. There's a show called 'Five O'Clock' which will be a mix, and a special on Balanchine. . . ."
Mr. Shay indicates that he has been impressed by the popularity of the Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and other manifestations of pop culture. He also inadvertently reveals that perhaps he has been even more impressed by the sale of Picasso T-shirts than by the popularity of the show itself. "Much of the data that we are getting about increased attendance at museums, opera, concerts, dance, etc., proves that there is an appetite for this kind of programming. If we can put it on, using creative presentations, by using hosts who will follow through the four hours of programming and who perhaps have credibility from another medium -- a more popular medium -- that's how we feel we will hold on to the audiences. There was a 'Dance in America' on PBS about Martha Graham and they used Gregory Peck as host. It turned out to be one of the highest rated 'Dance In America' programs ever. Peck brought in new audiences.That's what we want to do. If we can get James Earl Jones or Hal Prince or Studs Terkel . . . we're talking crossover."
We are also talking a total lack of real commitment to the concept that the American public is truly interested in cultural programming.
As part of the great American "downscale" audience not in the market for $1, 000 golf clubs, I would rather put my money -- through contributions, preferably -- on advertisingless PBS than on advertising-revenue-oriented CBS Cable, given the choice. And those are the key words: "given the choice . . ."
Is it too late to fight for free PBS? YOUR TELECOMMUNICATIONS FUTURE
The biggest electronic change Americans will see in their homes in this decade, according to a survey by DMT and LINK (a subsidiary of International Data Corporation) will be the development of systems for selecting information from a variety of data bases.This could be accomplished on TV sets or on separate computer terminals -- in much the same way that an airline reservations agent can call up information for travelers. According to Lee Greenhouse, director of New Electronic Media Programs for LINK, the results of the survey (which have not been released officially yet) revealed that a "significant" segment of the population will purchase videocassette recorders and video games within the next few years. A lesser number expressed interest in videodisc systems.
Cable television has proven to be an effective trailblazer for the new generation of electronic home products. Nearly two-thirds of those who already subscribe expressed satisfaction with their service. More than a third of those who do not currently subscribe to cable TV indicated that they are likely to do so in the future.
Nearly half of the more than 1,000 participants in the survey (sponsored, it must be remembered, by large corporations, many of which are involved in just such such services) indicated a desire for information systems to be two-way, or interactive.
This would allow them to use computers for such transactions as making airline and hotel reservations, voting in elections, preparing tax returns, taking college courses, paying bills, ordering merchandise, regulating their heating, sending messages to other subscribers to the system . . . or arranging large bank loans to pay for all the aforementioned services. WHAT'S POPULAR ON CASSETTE AND DISC
RCA's videodisc catalog for its new monaural system, which will be introduced officially on March 22, includes such varied titles as "Butch Cassidy," "The Dirty Dozen," and "Citizen Kane" on film; "Star Trek" and "The World of Jacques Cousteau" from TV; "Hamlet" and "The Royal Ballet" from the performing arts; and "Julia Child" cooking lessons. CABLE NEWS NETWORK
Amid rumors that Time-Life is negotiating to buy the Cable News Network from Ted Turner of Atlanta comes word that the future looks rosy for CNN on its own. Or, at least with the infusion of money coming from its stock sales to the public.
While it is losing close to $2 million a month currently, it is ahead of Turner's own projections for advertising revenue. CNN claims it is in 4.7 million homes of the estimated 17.7 million homes with cable.
According to advertising sources, there are many major corporations about to take the plunge into CNN as already have Procter and Gamble, General Foods, Buick, and Ford.
One of the best talk shows anywhere -- cable or commercial over the air -- is CNN's "Freeman Reports" which has managed to capture top personalities in almost every breaking news story for nighttime amplification.
Most news pros admit that, despite their anticipation that CNN would fall flat on its dish, indications are that, while it is not the most innovative service available, it is always there. It proved itself during the hostage release when often it was the only source of continuing coverage.