MONITOR staff writer Lawrence J. Goodrich recently interviewed John H. Hoagland Jr., chairman of Monitor Television Inc., regarding the startup of The Monitor Channel in May. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Why is the Christian Science Church launching a cable channel, and what does it hope to achieve?
The founder of the church [Mary Baker Eddy] put us in the news business in 1908 in founding The Christian Science Monitor as a daily newspaper. And as the news media has expanded into new forms, the Monitor has made itself available in those forms. It seems clear that the trend of television news for the future - and I would say television is where a majority of people get their news today - is toward a continuous service, essentially being available all the time at the convenience of the viewer.... Lifestyles are changing - work patterns, home patterns - and it is essential for the future that we be available with something valuable when people themselves have the time to turn to it.
What is the niche you're trying to fill? The cable spectrum at this point seems to be quite full.
As we've said to ourselves a number of times lately, cable television is becoming a very big city, and as a big city it can be served very well by more than one cable newspaper. We feel that The Monitor Channel will offer depth compared to the breadth of other television news services, just as the Monitor as a newspaper offers depth compared to the broad approach of other daily papers.
What is the relationship of The Monitor Channel to The Christian Science Monitor newspaper?
I guess the hope of all of us is that as time goes forward, Monitor journalism will be the core element that finds its way to the public, from a single core through a variety of means.
How does the channel fulfill the church's mission?
I think exactly the same way that the newspaper does. The purpose of the newspaper is really to present a clear world view to people who feel committed to their home, their workplace, their community, the world around them, and who are discerning in the news sources that they turn to. All of us are dependent on our sources of news, whether it's newspapers or magazines or radio or television. And we want the clearest, most accurate sources we can get.
The purpose of the Monitor has always been to provide a truthful world view, and particularly one that doesn't make a claim on someone's intellect. It doesn't tell them how to think. It gives them the tools for individual thinking. That's precisely what we're trying to do with The Monitor Channel.
Do you have a target at this point for the number of households you hope to reach in a given amount of time?
Yes. First of all, on the point of the cable spectrum being full. I think any assessment of the trends of the '90s would indicate that that's a two to three-year issue - that there's a constellation of issues that come under the general title of the capacity crunch.... I think we're already seeing the signs of the fiber-optic era coming on very fast. In the second half of the '90s, that translates into 150-channel capacity systems, as Time Warner is talking about now. And there will be a point in the next several years where the demand for programming moves back up again. So we want to prove ourselves in this more challenging period while that's happening.
We have over the last several months somewhat scaled back our business plan, recognizing the very tight situation that the industry will be in for a couple of years. So we expect to launch with ... probably about 2 million subscribers to begin with in May ... and then to be somewhere in the 20-25 million household range by the mid-'90s. That's challenging, but doable.
What financial and commercial hurdles have you faced in putting this together?
The hurdles that would be typical of any major new television news enterprise. I think probably our figures, although obviously very substantial, are less because they're incremental for existing news organizations. If we had to build an international news organization from scratch, it would be very different. But we have a long history of the newspaper, of radio, and then essentially six years of television behind us.
Some ask whether the church can sustain an effort like this.
It has sustained an enormous effort for the newspaper, and will have to continue sustaining an enormous effort for the newspaper. I think for the newspaper and radio ... that these will be regarded as public services. For the long-term future they have to be carried. For the magazine and for television, we've imposed much stricter business standards. Startup costs in any activity like this are substantial, but we have very rigorous demands to reach break even. That's the test.
Are you at ease with the timing?
Oh sure. I suppose occasionally through the '80s many people have felt that we should have gotten into television around 1970 when the idea first came up. But we didn't because we weren't ready to. But when you are ready to, I think the costliest thing to do would be to delay on the basis that somehow something's going to change externally in two or three years.