50,000 Channels And Nothing To Watch

Life as a couch potato isn't as easy as it looks. Oh sure, you never have to budge from the Barcalounger. But try finding something to watch on a Saturday morning: Too often, you end up choosing between the Winston Cup Fishing Tour on SportsChannel and taped coverage of a U.S. Senate filibuster on C-SPAN II.

The cable-TV industry promises to irrigate this video desert by multiplying your number of channels from 50 to 500. Or even 50,000. Today, say cable operators, innovative programming ideas are being strangled because conventional systems can't carry any more channels. But with fiber-optic wire and digital technology, they contend, cable TV will soon become the Gutenberg press of the galactic age, enabling programmers to produce services for every viewer interest or taste.

Not so fast. It is a canard to say that 500 channels will offer viewers a panoply of good programs. Illogical as it sounds, viewers may actually lose some of their services in the brave new world of cable. Harsh economics, government regulation of cable rates, and restrictions on new competitors could choke off the programming pipeline just when cable needs a greater flow.

AD CRUNCH. The Federal Communications Commission ought to keep this in mind as it prepares to announce new cable regulations. The FCC was set to pass the first of its regulations on Mar. 11, and it will impose limits on rates next month. Certainly, consumers deserve a break. But to avoid penalizing programmers, the FCC should allow them to find other backers. By letting telephone companies compete fully in cable, for example, the FCC could uncork a flood of investment.

Cable programmers will need every penny of it: The economics of programming are tough already, and the proliferation of channels makes matters worse. Most networks get more than half of their revenue from advertising. Trouble is, program costs are spiraling, while ad dollars are split among more channels. That's why so many programmers rely on reruns, such as Lost in Space and The Flintstones.

Some networks do produce decent original programming. Courtroom Television Network, for example, helps viewers unravel thorny cases, such as the William Kennedy Smith trial. But reregulation may hobble it and other plucky competitors. To protect their profits, operators are likely to place small networks, such as Court TV, on premium tiers, where subscribers will have to pay extra to get them. As a result, they will lose some of their audience and with it, their ability to sell ads. That could spell doom.

Without innovative smaller networks, we could end up with a 500-channel strip mall of home-shopping services and pay-per-view movies. That's certainly convenient. But we are forgetting that laughter and tears, not discount jewelry, made television worth watching in the first place.

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