If diversity is the surest sign of maturity, then Argentine cable programming is entering a golden age. A city already host to separate channels for students, doctors and investors in the stock exchange, Buenos Aires has also seen a 24-hour tango web, a fashion network and a Hebrew-language channel start up in the last few months.

With yet more debuts just around the corner (next up: Companeros, a web for union members) such boutique channels are jostling for space and ad revenue. And with the Argentine economy flat this year, it’s a tough time to be carving a new niche.

Cable ad spending is not likely to exceed $120 million in 1995, which is not a lot to divvy up among system operators and some 100 Argentine, U.S. and European channels. While cable ratings exist, most boutique channels are too young or too narrow in interest to register appreciably.

Still, even the more sophisticated boutique channels can launch with a fairly modest investment. Solo Tango, the 24-hour channel dedicated to Argentina’s national art form, bowed with an initial investment of $1 million. As well as offering plenty of tango performers, classic and modern, general manager Juan Fabbri is spicing the mix with dance lessons, readings by tango-inspired poets and roundtable discussions.

Network execs are pleased with the initial response. Initially just one of Buenos Aires’ big three operators carried the signal, but now all of them do. The channel is also gaining ground outside Buenos Aires, and has made inroads in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil.

Though Solo Tango costs $200,000 a month to run, production director Daniel Morano is not disturbed by the current lack of sponsors. The service is only now creating a marketing department and plans to start an ad drive at the Jornadas. “We’re confident we’ll get more advertisers because in less than a year we’ve grown to 3 million subscribers,” Morano says. He adds that programming exports to Europe and Asia already help defray costs.

Producers at the Alef Network, which is dedicated to Jewish-interest programming, already boast several major sponsors including Visa, Banco Mayo and cordless telephone company Movicom. They also believe that given the initial audience response, ad coin will grow.

“There’s a community of 300,000 Jews in Argentina, and this alone is important.,” says production manager Gaston Moguilevski. “Moreover we are only toddlers and we’re already moving from an initial 10 hours per day to 18 hours this November, and we’ll reach 24 hours a day by next April.”

Immediate plans include expansion to Uruguay, Chile, Southern Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. By the end of 1996, Alef hopes to be seen in 18 Latino territories. Alef s initial investment was $3 million, but costs are low since most programming is imported and only has to be dubbed or subtitled.

Some channels are finding that longevity is no guarantee of ad growth. A producer at Cable Saber, an educational/medical channel, says ad revenue grew in 1994 only to fall off again this year.

Sebastian Arias Duval, programming manager at MSO Cable Vision – which carries six or seven boutique channels – believes it may be several years before such networks start to make profits. “The Argentine market is not as segmented as in the U.S.,” says Arias Duval. “And we must admit that 24 hours of medicine or tango can be just a bit too much.”

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