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The 500-channel system will change the cable business in the future. But the industry faces a much more immediate change: flat ratings and their effect on advertising.

With basic cable failing to continue its streak of ratings gains last season, agency media buyers wonder if cable network sales executives will get the cost increases they've sought and received in the past.

"Cable networks expect that rates are going to go up, as has happened for the past few years," says Aaron Cohen, senior VP-director, national broadcast at N W Ayer, New York.

But with cable ratings leveling off, he adds, "I don't know how much of a rude shock it may come to some of them when they find some resistance to their requests for increases."

The Big 3 broadcast networks combined for a 61 share of the viewing audience last season, up 1 point from the previous season. The combined share for basic cable networks, however, remained flat at 22, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Because of this lack of growth, Mr. Cohen says he doesn't expect ad budgets for cable to show the percentage gains they've had in the past.

"I'm not expecting the cable marketplace to be a more robust one than it's been" in the last few years, he says.

Cable sales executives say they're not concerned with network TV's 1-point jump.

"A 1 share point increase over the previous year isn't a trend or a [statistical] aberration," says Peter Weisbard, VP-sales, Group W Satellite Communications, the sales and marketing arm for The Nashville Network and Country Music Television. "It'll depend on what happens next season."

Mr. Weisbard says TNN and CMT sales staffs will look for cost-per-thousand increases between 6% and 9% on their growing universes and their demographic strengths-CMT for women, TNN for men.

Some cable executives, however, admit future audience gains won't come as easily as they have in the past.

"We've already picked the low-hanging fruit," says Bill Wiehe, Travel Channel VP-sales. "Now we're tapping at the core network TV viewers."

Travel Channel will ask for CPM increases of about 15%, Mr. Wiehe says.

"It's a bit unusual because our CPMs historically have been lower than they should have been" versus networks with similar upscale audience demographics such as Arts & Entertainment Network, Discovery Channel and Learning Channel, he says.

Travel Channel's expectations for efficiencies seem to confirm some buyers' beliefs about the cable business: pricing is driven by the demand for individual networks.

"We see almost a two-tier situation emerging," says Jack Deitchman, senior VP-U.S. director of broadcast and programming, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York. "Some of the real niche networks will do better than the broad-spectrum networks, like a USA Network."

Mr. Deitchman predicts CPM increases in the mid-to-high-single digits for these niche networks, such as A&E, Discovery Channel and ESPN.

"There's a demand for that kind of programming and audience," he says. "It's an area that's selective for many of our clients."

Hoping to appeal to the client community, many cable networks have anounced their programming plans for the next season.

Discovery Channel expects to have more than 500 hours of original programming in the coming TV season, with "big event" programs scheduled to debut each month.

The first, "The Brain: Our Universe Within," a five-part miniseries, will make its debut in October; "The Space Shuttle" will premiere in November; and "Stargazers" is scheduled for December.

Also on tap are several new series such as "Amazing America," which will be hosted by Kevin Nealon of NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live." The show will explore the odd side of American pop culture.

The main fall launches for Learning Channel include "Paleo World," a series of half-hour episodes that will re-create the world of dinosaurs with 3-D animation, reconstructed skeletons and robotic models, and "Ancient Warriors," an historical series about the rise and fall of various warrior cults.

Both series will start in September.

One cable network that's found success in programming a traditional debut week is A&E. The network again will offer a special "A&E Fall Premiere Week" starting Sept. 11.

A&E will have 640 hours of first-run series and specials as part of its new season and will add the new series "20th Century" and the off-network drama "Law & Order."

Other fall cable network premieres include original "Young Indiana Jones" made-for-TV movies on Family Channel; and the off-network series "Taxi" on Nick at Nite.

And then there's Comedy Central, which again will offer its "Fall Season in July."

Aside from airing the BBC comedy "Absolutely Fabulous" and a new season of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000," the network will introduce five original shows. Among its debut projects: "Balls," a humorous look at sports, scheduled to start July 8, and "The Vacant Lot," featuring that Toronto-based sketch comedy troupe, starting Aug. 12.

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