Yesterday, today and beyond

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I will never forget the spectacle of Turner Broadcasting visionary Ted Turner standing on a table 20 years ago at a conference in Boston and maniacally exhorting the wonders of his fledgling cable TV dream.

Now, people in the remotest reaches of the planet watch AOL Time Warner merger leaders Gerald Levin and Steve Case exchange high-fives via the metallic umbilical cord that is CNN.

Talk about a long, strange trip.

Along the way, cable has always been exciting and has had glittering potential -- audience levels to rival broadcast TV and superb targeting to upscale demos. It's also had eternally unfulfilled expectations: reliable local research and trafficking systems.

Local cable is still its own worst enemy when it comes to advertising sales, owing to the patchwork quilt of systems serving many important markets, and the wide disparity in the way operators insert commercials, generate "research" and handle such niggling details as post-analysis. Indeed, the naive can still get badly burned planning and buying local cable.

National operations, too, continue to have problems. I founded in 1980 one of the first cable reps, Cable Networks. To get our advertisers inserted into New York area cable systems we had to hand-deliver videotapes to a trailer parked near a transmission tower in Alpine, N.J.

On the bright side, the marriage of ABC and ESPN looks like a winner. When CIA Medianetwork recently negotiated a TV schedule for J.P. Morgan Co., we would not have even considered network TV because of our high-income target audience and the prohibitive cost per thousand involved. ABC/ESPN's proposed package included both networks, which resulted in ABC getting a buy that we would not have normally done. Another plus is the ability of CNN to offer our clients representation in five properties: CNN, Headline News, CNNfn, CNN Airport and CNN Interactive. One-stop shopping and aggressive CPMs.

The future of cable is closely tied to the Internet, and in this way cable is no different than broadcast TV. When broadband happens in a big way, there are going to be a slew of Web sites that are, in effect, the same as today's cable networks. But the dynamics will be different because the Web site owners won't share the same worries as early cable operators: grubbing for carriage and booking transponders on satellites. The barriers of entry will be very low, and creative content will be king. However, these new "networks" will be better than the TV networks we now have. That's because you'll be able to do more with them.

The early broadcast model was based upon all revenue coming from advertising. Cable augmented this with subscriber revenues. The future will add a third stream: commerce, as in direct-response, interactive selling. The harbingers are everywhere. Is it accidental that CBS is bulking up on Web sites that are capable of broadcasting to special-interest audiences? Did you read about the town in Georgia that has become the first U.S. city to offer all of its citizens free Internet access? Of course, all the good citizens of La Grange must first subscribe to Charter Communications' cable service to get the Internet link. Altruism, centennial style.

More and more, we'll see old-fashioned TV programming used as a means to push people to Web sites, where they can customize their own "broadcast" schedules, interact with like-minded folks and, yes, buy stuff.

Thomas P. Sassos is CEO of CIA Medianetwork North America, New York, a global media planning and buying specialist owned by Tempus Group, London.

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