Aggressive promotion of CNN’s Persian Gulf war coverage has divided the nation’s cablers, some of whom worry that subscription drives plugging war news could be interpreted as opportunism.

At the same time, new cable subscriptions in some areas have leaped even without benefit of promos.

“Using a war to promote a product is really blatant,” says Jim Duffy, director of public relations for AT& C, the Time Warner MSO. “It would be like jumping in right after Pearl Harbor and advertising what a wonderful sound our sirens made.”

But CNN’s visibility has become so pervasive that some cable operators see nothing wrong with using its coverage as the focus of ad campaigns to lure new subscribers:

* Glen Friedman, marketing director of Time Warner’s Manhattan Cable in New York, says the system harvested a “phenomenal” 2,000 phone calls as the direct result of an ad on the two local all-news radio stations targeting noncable subscribers with the message: If you want 24-hour-a-day visuals of what’s happening in the gulf, call Manhattan Cable.

* Cox Cable has funneled to its 134 cable systems the matrix of a print ad showing an off-the-tube picture of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney at a press conference (with the CNN logo superimposed). In the text of the ad, Cox uses the tagline “For times like these… it’s always on cable.” The ad also says the system will give new subscribers free installation and guarantee a hookup within 24 hours.

* Meanwhile, the Times Mirror cable system in Phoenix is chalking up hundreds of new subscribers without benefit of any CNN-related publicity campaign, although TM’s Lori Fields says the system has very poor penetration – about 40% – and there’s plenty of room for growth.

Fields reports inquiries from commercial businesses ballooned 300% in the first seven days of the war (compared with the previous week). And the increase in new subscriptions from households climbed 37% week to week, she says, adding that “the weekend of Jan. 19th saw the largest influx of telephone requests for residence installation in the past 12 months. There were 797 calls.”

Cox is the MSO that’s most aggressively tying in the hype over CNN with a push for new subscribers – but that’s not to say the cabler isn’t worried about the perception of feeding off the tragedy of war. “We’re providing all of this advertising and promotional material to our systems,” says Dave Andersen, v.p. of public affairs for Cox. “We’re leaving it up to them to use the materials they way they deem proper.”

“We’re very concerned about giving the appearance of capitalizing on a war,” says Rick Sperry, v.p. of marketing and sales for Comcast Corp., a top 10 MSO. “It was a companywide decision on our part not to take advantage of this event in a commercialized way.”

Even the biggest MSO of them all, TCI, is restraining itself from playing up the CNN connection. “The world’s going through some tough times,” says Lela Cocoros, manager of communications for TCI. “We don’t want to cross that fine line that would make it look like we’re exploiting the gulf war.”

In Canada, McLean-Hunter Cable has added 2,000 new CNN subscribers in the past week or so, says a spokesman for the company. That’s significant, he adds, because CNN is not part of the basic-cable service in Canada – it’s on a separate pay tier.

And back in Phoenix, Times Mirror’s commercial hookups have displayed a marked shift. Before Jan. 17, the day after the war started, the main commercial clients were hotel lounges, bars and restaurants. In the last 10 days, the new commercial subscribers have included airlines, builders, grocery stores, law offices, manufactures and other non-service-related businesses.

“This event proves that cable has come of age,” says Steve Effros, president of the Community Antenna Television Assn., a Washington lobbying group. “The systems didn’t even need to take out ads to promote what CNN is doing – it’s on the front page of every newspaper. Word-of-mouth is spreading all over the world.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more