Future OK, b’casters told

Broadcasters needn’t be overly afraid of technology and the advent of a 500 -channel marketplace, according to the heads of the CBS/Broadcast Group, Fox Broadcasting Co. and Paramount Domestic TV.

Saying people don’t have time now to watch all the channels available,CBS broadcast group president Howard Stringer, Fox chairman Lucie Salhany and Paramount distribution chief Steve Goldman all questioned the desire for additional channels, citing data suggesting people only watch a dozen or so of the services and stations available. They also pondered how cable or even the telephone companies will finance production for new services when, as Salhany observed, the networks “can’t afford to produce programming now for four channels.”

The remarks were part of a three-tiered National Assn. of Broadcasters “futures summit” trying to ascertain what the market will be like in 2000 for programming, advertising and in terms of demographics.

Stringer maintained that the people talking most about a 500-channel environment are those pushing the technology that makes it possible, calling the prospect of a viable 500-channel universe “all harness and no horse.”

Unable to resist a barb over the financial interest and syndication rules, Stringer added that Time Warner, with its cable holdings, “wants 450 (channels) for itself and they’re still whining about the one we own.”

In an earlier panel on advertising, Dennis Liebowitz, senior VP and security analyst at Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette, seemed to concur. He suggested that such an explosion of channels would essentially be taken up by pay-per-view, signaling a transfer from one medium (namely, video stores) to another (pay-per-view) without dramatically changing the allocation of the current viewing pie.

When Salhany posed a rhetorical question about programming a 500-channel environment, Wertheim Schroeder & Co. managing partner David Londoner observed programmers will ultimately fill that capacity “with a lot of junk.”

“You cannot have 100 one-rated channels and be able to program for them,” Salhany said.

Londoner also agreed with Paramount’s Goldman about the passivity of TV as a medium and limitations on interactivity, saying people want to be entertained and “don’t want to pick the ending of the movie.”

He added, however, that TV would gradually move from an advertiser-supported medium more toward becoming a consumer-paid-for medium.

The likelihood of 70% of the U.S. being capable of receiving impulse-bought pay-per-view by 2000 also raises the prospect of delivering major features on that basis, he said.

Some of the most interesting panel material dealt with changing demographics, with American Demographics editor Brad Edmondson and Yankelovich Clancy Shulman managing partner Watts Wacker citing slowing population growth as a key factor shaping the future of television.

Audiences, as a result, won’t be much bigger than they are today, and what growth is occurring population-wise is largely among minority groups who are more resistant to assimilation than previous immigrants, meaning new viewers “may not share the same background as programmers,” Edmondson said.

The audience is also aging, with the median age projected at 36 by 2000, compared to 33 today. The number of people over 75 (who tend to be heavy TV viewers) also is increasing, while the number and buying power of 18-34 -year-olds — a key demographic target at present — is in decline.

In terms of social factors, Wacker said viewers have become more cynical. If the ’70s was dominated by the “me ethic,” he said, the ’90s have become galvanized by “victim ethics”– demonstrated by the success of the movie “Falling Down”– where viewers feel set upon and tune in to see how much better off they are than others.

In this environment, with myriad choices available and trust in institutions fading, people are seeking simplification from broadcasters. “One of the most important roles for you is that of editor,” he said.

The programming panel also explored recent pressure to reduce violence on television. Stringer said unlike handguns or joblessness, “we (the networks) are something that Washington can fix, or deal with.”

Still, he reiterated CBS’ goal to curb violence in prime time next fall, saying it’s an area broadcasters must explore and that’s it’s “not enough to say , ‘Look at cable.’ ”

The networks have formed a coalition to explore TV violence and meet with legislators, such as Sen. Paul Simon, who have expressed dismay over violence on TV.

Stringer called it a laudable goal, but added, “If we eliminate all killing on network television … killing in this country will not stop.”

Pointing to another perceived double standard as it applies to cable, Salhany asked that broadcasters and the press call attention to the limited reach and ratings for most cable networks. In a display of magnaminity, Stringer agreed, saying the success of Fox “has cut into (network) audiences far more than cable has.”

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