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DALLAS-Cable operators here at the National Cable Television Association convention last week said that the industry is slowly shaking off its malaise-but what's behind the better mood isn't necessarily good news for programmers.

John Malone, president-CEO of TCI, summed up the issue when he said the focus in the cable industry now isn't programming, but the regulation-lite computer industry.

"The government has stayed out. That industry is not legislated and has been left as free enterprise," Mr. Malone said.

As was apparent at the convention, attended by more than 25,000 people, Mr. Malone's sentiments rang true. The cable industry is widely turning its attention to other business such as telephony, interactive TV and online computer services instead of traditional programming.

For example, on the convention floor, Microsoft had little trouble drawing crowds, while programmers and some equipment manufacturers resorted to games and celebrities.

At least 100 new networks have plans to launch between now and the end of 1996, but most were less visible this year.

"You have to have a sober business plan and not be overzealous. Today you have to be prepared to hunker down," said Nickolas Rhodes, senior VP-business development for the Cox Communications-Times Mirror joint venture CTM Networks, whose booth promoted its new Outdoor Life and Speedvision networks.

Some of the other networks that were present took a cue from the cable industry's shift in interest. Discovery Networks decided to put its resources and efforts behind the launch of a new online service on the Internet.

Greg Moyer, president and chief operating officer of Discovery Networks, said he now believes the four niche services it once touted might never launch as traditional 24-hour services because of the channel paradigm.

"People have wanted to talk to us about file servers and programs on demand," Mr. Moyer said.

"We have the new networks in development, but they could be a subset for particular interests. We'll use the extra time to assess the delivery and maybe come out with more innovative things."

Although the "going forward" rules have helped some established networks expand distribution, detractors say they have stifled developing networks.

"The regulations have changed the face of television economics," said Brad Siegel, president of Turner Network Television and Turner Classic Movies.

"Advertising revenues are out of the equation for new services, and the burden is on the consumer .... At what point will advertisers support a service as it moves on a new product tier?"

Mr. Walley is New York bureau chief for Electronic Media; reporter Lindsey Kelly contributed to this story.

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