Cable TV's catchword for '84 is service

The fare on cable television next year will be much the same as this year, but industry leaders say service for -cable subscribers should improve in 1984. That's the word from Thomas Wheeler, president of the National Cable Television Association, which sponsored the 1983 National Cable Programming Conference. The emphasis here was on consumer service rather than program content.

Although there is discernible displeasure with the quality and content of cable programming, there is almost universal dissatisfaction with the way cable-systems operators service their customers. Customers as well as pay-TV companies, which must reach their subscribers through the basic cable system, have complained that service is inadequate.

According to Westinghouse Electric Corporation, cable companies next year will give closer attention to consumer service: closer monitoring of quality of signal, better switchboards, more surveys, better customer-service representatives, quicker service, and franchise shops in retail locations.

In the future, service and repairs will be done by expertly trained employees , much like the servicing operation of Sears, Roebuck & Co., according to Mr. Wheeler.

In addition, the new Council for Cable Information has hired McCann Erikson, the agency that handles ads for the Coca-Cola Company and Shearson/American Express, to plan a $5 million advertising campaign to upgrade the image of cable television.

The campaign strategy is to pitch cable television to potential subscribers much the way Coca-Cola is sold to consumers. It aims to convince the public that cable is not ''just more TV,'' and that cable subscribers are upscale, high-income, active, and lead exciting life styles.

As 916 cable-TV program producers, suppliers, and system operators met at the stately old Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the latest Nielsen figures on the cable market were released. Figures show the cable industry has penetrated more than 34 million households - or 40.5 percent of all households in the United States. Most industry leaders who attended the conference, which was arranged to precede the annual Western Cable Show in Anaheim, Calif., agreed the new goal should be to reach 70 percent of American homes within 10 years.

Programming leaders from most major pay-cable services, from Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime to the Disney Channel and the Playboy Channel, attended the two-day conference. Panel participants included Jim Jimirro, president of Walt Disney Telecommunications; Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon; Ted Turner, chairman of Turner Broadcasting System; and Gerald Levin, vice-president of The Video Group of Time Inc.

Other information gleaned from panel sessions, press conferences, and interviews with industry leaders was wide-ranging:

* The future of cable lies with ''High Definition TV'' (better picture quality), stereo sound, remote-control switching, and more pay-per-view shows. Practically all of the technology is already available.

* The Movie Channel, just combined with Showtime, plans to be ''the ultimate movie theater, open 24 hours per day.'' It will present feature festivals such as the Sherlock Holmes Festival.

* Ted Turner's Cable News Network (CNN) package costs most cable systems 15 cents per subscriber and is seldom passed on to customers. Most systems pay $4. 50 a head for HBO and charge the consumer about $9 for the service.

* All services and systems are concerned about ''front loading.'' Many services provide top shows at the start of the month to attract new customers, then have a lull at the end of the month.

* CBS Cable and the Entertainment Channel, now both defunct, are often cited as examples of bad planning and miscalculation of the marketplace. ARTS, which is preparing to air much Entertainment Channel material, is cited as an example of a service that has learned from experience.

* A new concept being tried in Chicago is the early release of new films sent electronically to owners of videocassette recorders, who can purchase an unscrambling device.

* Mr. Turner says cable has an immediate chance to wrest leadership from commercial TV in the news arena. He says the commercial networks devote only 10 to 15 percent of their time to news and information, while CNN devotes 100 percent.

The rosy glow of cable enthusiasm is showing signs of fading, while awareness of the need to consolidate and improve is taking hold of industry leaders.

For 1984, the emphasis is likely to be on improvement of service. After that, perhaps more attention will be paid to improvement in programming, which most cable services seem to feel can get by for now.

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