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Upcoming cable nets face a la carte future

The Cartoon Network and the Sci-Fi Channel are chalking up surprisingly robust Nielsens for 10-month-old cable networks. But the industry consensus is that they may be the last of the breed of fledgling programming services that can make an instant impact in the ratings.

Most of the deals made by Sci-Fi (with 10.4 million subscribers) and by Cartoon (with 6.1 million subs) with cable systems place these webs on the expanded-basic lineup with all of the mass-circulation cable networks (CNN, ESPN , USA, Discovery, etc.).

“Any new networks coming along from now on will go out a la carte, or on separately priced tiers,” not on expanded basic, says Tim Brooks, VP of research for the USA network, which owns and operates the Sci-Fi Channel. (A la carte is the industry term for a network that subscribers pay an additional price for.)

Cable advantage

The reason new networks will have to live with occupancy on low-penetration tiers is that cable operators will make more money through this strategy. New federal laws regulate the price operators can charge their subscribers for expanded basic.

And getting rate increases for new networks that operators add to expanded basic is a complicated procedure that ops may think twice about pursuing. By happy contrast, new tiers will not be regulated as long as each of the networks on the tier is also available to subscribers a la carte.

But it’s almost certain that these a la carte tiers will reach only a percentage of the cable system’s subscribers, thus jeopardizing the networks’ chances of good ratings.

That’s why cable network officials like Kate McEnroe, executive VP of Romance Classics, a proposed new network made up of movies and TV series geared to women , are urging multisystem operators to jettison expanded-basic webs that subscribers are not watching. “Just because a network is part of expanded basic doesn’t mean it can claim a birthright,” says McEnroe. “If the network is underperforming, and doesn’t appear to be of value to the subscriber, it may have to go away.”

The corollary, of course, is that the cable operator would replace the guillotined network with newcomers like Romance Classics, Sci-Fi, Cartoon and the new networks being cooked up by Fox, ABC and NBC.

Ratings war

Fox’s new cable network is trying to pick off the high-rated USA Networks because it charges operators a fairly stiff monthly price, which averages out to about 25 cents a subscriber.

Romance is not up and running yet, while Cartoon (which kicked off Oct. 1, 1992) and Sci-Fi (which began Sept. 24, 1992) are on the satellite and churning out “surprisingly good” ratings, according to Howard Nass, senior VP of Foote, Cone & Belding, the ad agency. Cartoon’s boast is that, within its coverage area , it averaged an animated 1.2 rating sign-on-to-sign-off for July, placing it second — behind TBS — among all of the 25 measured cable networks.

During a recent week (July 5-11), 11 of Cartoon’s programs averaged at least a 2.5 rating, a figure earned by only 32 other shows on all of basic cable.

Sci-Fi became an official Nielsen client six weeks ago, and for the month of July it averaged an otherworldly 0.9 rating in primetime, which translates to 90 ,000 homes in its coverage area.

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