CHANNEL-SURF through the offerings on any cable system, and it's easy to see that the concept behind most cable channels can be expressed in one, maybe two words. Sports. Movies. Music videos. News. When The Monitor Channel premieres next Wednesday, May 1, some viewers will find an alternative to the Cable News Network, the institution that has long dominated the ``news'' niche in the cable industry.
For cable system programming executives, the people who decide what to show on cable systems, the question of the moment is whether ``Monitor,'' the industry's shorthand for the channel, ``can ... create enough of a differential between themselves and CNN,'' says Dennis McAlpine, a media and entertainment analyst at the investment bank Barclays de Zoete Wedd.
Mr. McAlpine says the channel's origins already make it ``a little unique,'' but says Monitor hasn't settled the identity question yet. Dave Andersen, vice president for public affairs at Cox Cable Communications, one the country's 10-largest cable system operators, says Monitor has ``probably not'' distinguished itself from CNN so far. But he adds: ``We do like what we see.''
John H. Hoagland, Jr., chairman and chief executive of Monitor Television Inc., says he realizes that cable system operators will need some time to value the identity of The Monitor Channel. In a speech at a cable industry convention earlier this month, Mr. Hoagland said, ``[T]he reality of news publishing is that trust is earned and won over time, through the test of use by a public that is able to discern comparative access, tone, depth, liveliness, interest and reliability among competing news source s.''
Mr. Andersen at Cox Cable says another challenge for Monitor will be what the industry calls the ``capacity crunch.'' The average cable system in the United States offers 36 channels for the monthly ``basic programming'' fee, and there are 60 national and 30 regional networks, as well as local programming, competing for the available space, according to the National Cable Television Association.
The Monitor Channel will soon be joined by several other new offerings including Courtroom Television Network, which will cablecast live coverage of trials around the country, and the Sci-Fi Channel.
The crunch means that cable programmers will have to drop an existing channel in order to make room for new offerings like Monitor or Court-TV, and ``that's a difficult decision,'' says John Mathwick, group vice president at Jones Intercable.
But Hoagland and other cable industry observers point out that new technologies will soon ease the crunch. Time Warner, for instance, is now converting its Queens, N.Y., system to fiber-optic cable, boosting the available channels there to 150.
``Compression'' technology, which will allow cable operators to increase capacity without costly and time-consuming modifications to cable hardware, is also around the corner, says Netty Douglass, Monitor Television's president. She says it's also becoming increasingly affordable for home viewers to buy small satellite dishes, which may soon cost as little as $1,000. The dishes allow home viewers direct access to any programming beamed off of satellites.
And Monitor TV is asking the right price - it's free to operators for the first year. Under a charter operator plan, the cost for the second year is one cent per subscriber per month, a rate that increases a penny a year over the next four years. A spokeswoman at Jones Intercable says Monitor's rates are comparable with those of other new channels.
Hoagland says 2 million subscribers should receive Monitor during May, and the channel's business plan predicts 20 to 25 million subscribers by the mid-1990s. Monitor Television will sell most of the advertising time on the channel, but the cable operators also make money by selling a portion of the ad time.
The universe of cable television, right now, is about 56 million homes. That's 60 percent of all television households. The largest cable networks, like ESPN and CNN, are available in virtually all cable households.
Another observer who doesn't worry about the capacity crunch is Patricia Mellencamp, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who is writing a book on television. ``Television has just begun,'' she says. ``The diversity and differentiation [of television] will increase.''
Mellencamp worries that expansion may mean more of the same, but says ``people would be smart to start stations now.''