Sci-Fi Channel on the Launching Pad : Television: The channel begins Sept. 24 with a presentation of 'Star Wars.' No cable systems in Southern California have signed up.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Prepare yourself for an invasion," a deep, computer-enhanced voice says in menacing tones over a black TV screen, which then erupts into brightly colored flashes of static. "It's coming for you."

These words, repeated over and over, are part of a two-hour package of ominous and sometimes menacing sounds and images that are now being fed to cable systems around the country to stir up interest in the Sci-Fi Channel--a new basic-cable service for futuristic fans of androids and aliens, outer dimensions, inner light, space travel and fantastic voyages.

After struggling for more than three years to get off the ground, the Sci-Fi Channel will launch Sept. 24 with a prime-time presentation of "Star Wars" in roughly 10 million of the nation's 56 million cable homes--the largest basic-cable launch since Ted Turner's successful TNT channel four years ago.

The Sci-Fi Channel hopes to conquer the cable world with a development schedule of 12 original movies a year, a theme-park agreement with Disney-MGM Studios, a publishing deal for a book series, a national fan club, a monthly magazine and extensive product licensing and merchandising ambitions.

One of the more unusual programming ideas on the channel is the FTL (Faster Than Light) news feed--daily TV news reports from the future written by science-fiction authors.

But the Sci-Fi Channel, which will be followed on Oct. 1 by the smaller launch of Turner's Cartoon Network, arrives at a challenging time in cable television, when ratings for many basic-cable networks are leveling off after a decade of growth and there is little advertiser demand for new ones.

No cable systems in Southern California have signed up for the Sci-Fi Channel yet. Although many have expressed interest, they primarily cite a lack of channel capacity. And they are turning it down despite the fact that the Sci-Fi Channel is literally giving its service away to charter members for periods of up to a year in order to attract business.

"We would love to be able to add it, and we are certainly considering it, but at this time we just have no room on our system for new channels," said Bob Helmuth, vice president of marketing for Cablevision Industries, which has 94,000 subscribers in the San Fernando Valley.

There's also a pending cable re-regulation bill that could place restrictions on how much money cable operators will be allowed to charge subscribers. That's making cable operators reluctant to add new basic services at this time because subscribers ultimately foot the bill for their cost. (Basic-cable channels are those that the customer receives for a flat monthly fee, such as CNN and ESPN, as opposed to premium channels such as HBO and Showtime that cost extra.)

To bring in advertisers, the Sci-Fi Channel is reportedly selling 30-second spots for around $100, compared to $1,000 to $3,000 for the larger basic-cable networks. Reaction to the Sci-Fi Channel has been mixed. Many cable operators and advertisers agree that there's an underserved audience of space junkies who they believe will flock to programming about science fiction, science fact, fantasy and horror. But others look at the starting schedule of rehashed, largely unsuccessful programming from ABC, CBS and NBC and simply call the effort cable overkill.

"As cable systems expand, programming expands to meet them, but that's not necessarily good," said Douglas Seay, senior vice president of national broadcast for the advertising agency Hal Riney & Associates. "It's like, how many options do you need? They say cable TV is an attempt to spread programming over 100 channels that's inadequate for 13 channels."

USA Networks--which bought the Sci-Fi Channel for a reported $100 million five months ago from founders Mitchell Rubenstein and Laurie S. Silvers of Boca Raton, Fla., who stayed on as vice chairmen--contends that the new channel is the next great cable success story.

There are more than 60 million science-fiction fans in the United States, as defined by the Sci-Fi Channel, based on their consumption of books, videos, TV series and movies. As the more enthusiastic fans caught wind of the fledgling cable service, they formed a Sci-Fi Channel Fan Alliance--or fan network--with 100 chapters now in place around the country.

"The time is right for this," said Tim Brooks, vice president of research for USA Networks. "We're in 1992 now, and the latter part of this decade, as we approach the new century--a new millennium--a lot of focus will be on space and the future, as it was 100 years ago. This channel is well positioned for that interest."

While most cable networks have two primary revenue streams--advertising and cable-operator fees--the Sci-Fi Channel will benefit strongly, Rubenstein believes, from merchandising.

"If you look at the most popular films of all time in this genre, their licensing and merchandising revenues are typically several times higher than their box-office revenues," Rubenstein said. "So if you look at the Sci-Fi Channel as an MTV or Nick, it's a marketing machine. Your licensing and merchandising can be a substantial portion of revenue and could exceed typical revenue streams that other networks live or die on."

To that end, USA Networks has dug deep into its pockets, investing an estimated $70 million to $100 million to acquire a storehouse of existing programming and to create an ambitious slate of original movies and series. In addition, futuristic and fanciful animated graphics and network spots to run between programs are being produced to create a distinct and marketable identity.

The Sci-Fi Channel schedule will consist at first almost entirely of acquisitions--many of which were laying dormant in the deep vaults of USA Networks' parent companies, Paramount Communications and MCA Inc. The service currently has about 300 movie titles--ranging from Bela Lugosi in "Dracula" to director Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" to four "Star Trek" movies--which will run mostly on weekends.

"Most cable networks get off the ground by having a bulk of relatively inexpensive programming, and then adding original programming and more expensive programming to it," said Doug Lowell, senior media analyst for Rockefeller, Rothschild & Steele in Los Angeles. "The Sci-Fi Channel is clearly starting out with less expensive programming."

Based on research suggesting that the bulk of sci-fi viewers prefer contemporary series, the Sci-Fi Channel will feature the "Star Wars" knockoff "Battlestar Galactica" and the syndicated series "War of the Worlds" in prime time. Older, classic series--such as the cult Vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows" and Rod Serling's supernatural "Night Gallery"--will be relegated to late-night hours.

The Sci-Fi Channel has acquired numerous short-lived shows that lasted no longer than a season on the broadcast networks, such as Isaac Asimov's literate "Probe," the invisible "Gemini Man," the movie-based "Starman" and "Otherworld," about a family who traveled to parallel universes. Rather than downplay these weaker entries, however, the Sci-Fi Channel is taking a cue from Nickelodeon's "Nick at Night" oldies and playing them up five nights a week in a prime-time program called "Great Series."

"Sci-fi fans want to see things like this, because they had a limited opportunity to see these shows in the first place," contended Barry Schulman, vice president of programming for the Sci-Fi Channel.

The real future for the Sci-Fi Channel appears to lie in original programming. The new service will be second only to USA's own top-rated basic-cable USA Network channel in original cable movie production with a dozen films a year, and several series are in development, including the magazine-style show "Sci-Fi Extra," a fact-based science program about the NASA space program, and a tabloid show called "Mysteries From Beyond the Other Dominion."

"Cable network economics call for a cable network, like any start-up business, to have an embryonic stage, where money is going out faster than it's coming in," said Rubenstein, a former cable system owner. "But in the meantime you're producing programming and building your library."

No Southern California cable systems have signed up for the Sci-Fi Channel yet. But 10 million cable homes in the nation will be able to receive nearly 500 hours of programming, including 17 series, beginning Sept. 24. Among the series are "Voyagers!," "Buck Rogers," "Incredible Hulk," "Bionic Women" and "Battlestar Galactica."

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