CATCHING UP WITH CABLE AS IT SHIFTS INTO REVERSE
Cable TV: the new world, the grand dream.
The cable industry held its annual convention in Las Vegas last week, to strut a bit and talk about the future. Meanwhile, I continued to convene my own one-man convention in front of a TV set and reach separate conclusions about cable.
What can you get from cable that you can’t get from regular TV? Not much.
Cable is still too young to define or bury, still in a shakedown period whose long-range outcome is unknown. So this is a progress (or regress) report, not an obituary.
Based on present offerings, however, the outlook for cable diversity is bleak and the hope of narrowcasting--an eclectic smorgasbord of programs for every imaginable taste--has mostly diminished to moldy leftovers.
Cable’s two-year economic slump may be over, but its artistic doldrums hang on. The survival instinct and bottom-line (some would call it greed ) ethic prevail as much in the new technology as in regular TV, with most cable operators and producers increasingly striving for the mass audience instead of the specialized audience. The broader the better.
The result? Much of cable is looking more and more like regular TV.
C-SPAN’s creative populism and Capitol Hill chronicles are an exception. The 24-hour Cable News Network, whose continuous presence and occasional special (as in telecasting the Claus von Bulow trial) coverage is another exception that gives viewers a true alternative. And there are some others.
Mostly, though, today’s cable means clone.
The prevailing industry attitude seems exemplified by Ron Katz, senior vice president at J. Walter Thompson USA, who told the trade weekly Electronic Media:
“From an advertiser’s viewpoint, cable is no longer everybody’s whipping boy, nor is it a great ray of hope. It’s a business.” A copycat business, at that.
How unique is cable? Here are a few examples:
ESPN, the cable network that specializes in sports, is planning 180 hours of 1984 Summer Olympics coverage this summer. That’s right, the same Olympics--and much of the same footage--that ABC showed last summer, only this time recut and with ESPN’s own announcers’ voices dubbed into the audio track.
Sorry, you still get Mary Lou You Know Who.
Meanwhile, CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) cable has further widened its audience by acquiring such electrifying oldies as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Patty Duke Show.”
Moving right along, the Disney Channel has bought rights to all those “Ozzie & Harriet” reruns that you’ve been dying to see-- again ! And in its quest to attract more adults, Disney is deploying a talk series with pop psychologist Joyce Brothers, who you figure would appear on TV in Greenland if it meant making a buck.
Then there is the case of Nickelodeon, formerly an island of kids-only programming. Nickelodeon is broadening its hours, and filling some of them with such network memorabilia as “Dennis the Menace” and “The Donna Reed Show.”
On to USA Network, which is planning its first original sitcom series for fall while continuing to rely heavily on such spectacular oldies as “Room 222,” “Dragnet,” “Candid Camera,” “The Gong Show,” “Make Me Laugh” and a glut of old cartoons and exhilarating old movies packaged under such titles as “Kung Fu Theater.”
Kung Fu Fooey.
However, the classic case of an ambitious cable concept turning completely around is Lifetime, the result of the merger of low-profile Daytime and the higher-profile Cable Health Network.
There are still some programs on Lifetime that promote physical and mental health. But much of a once-valuable cable service has now degenerated into mostly a talk show/telephone call-in network.
Lifetime’s lowlight is “Regis Philbin’s Lifestyles,” with the wimpy host and his guests blabbing as vacuously as Regis does on his WABC-TV show in New York.
Another is “The Richard Simmons Show.” Another is “Hot Properties With Richard Belzer.” Now Belzer’s comic nastiness can be very funny, but it’s the same kind of funny that’s found on regular TV.
Another is “America Talks Back With Stanley Siegel,” whose host is still the same old Stanley who was jettisoned from regular TV.
The ratings-whipped centerpiece of Lifetime, though, is “Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer,” in which Dr. Ruth’s guests include even her fellow Lifetime hosts.
By now, everyone on the planet knows about Dr. Ruth, the wee sex therapist with the wee voice for which you have wee tolerance after hearing her again and again and again. Dr. Ruth was refreshingly cute until overexposure intervened.
The tragedy of Lifetime is the tragedy of most of cable. It offers very little, including Dr. Ruth herself, that isn’t available on regular TV. There she was on KABC-TV’s “Three Three O” last week, telling Lisa Eilbacher: “As you know, Lisa, men cannot fake an erection.” Nor talent nor vision.
The dream fades.