ANAHEIM – If Tuesday afternoon’s preview general session of the California Cable Television Assn.’s 1996 Western Show is an accurate indicator, the 500-channel cable universe that had received so much ballyhoo in years past has received a radical downscaling to a more manageable, oh, 85 channels.

And as stressed at the session titled “Cable Menu: We Deliver Content,” the industry rallying cry is no longer “Let’s get digital!” but “Let’s get realistic.”

After the panel’s moderator, “Dateline NBC” correspondent and MSNBC host John Hockenberry, opened things up by joking that cable had recently rejected a Shroud of Turin Channel, Leo J. Hindery Jr., general managing partner of InterMedia Partners, stressed that he, for one, was in no laughing mood.

In fact, Hindery said, he was pretty uncomfortable sitting on a panel beside men like Discovery Communications Inc. chairman and CEO John Hendricks and Rainbow Programming prexy and CEO Joshua Sapan, whose new channels Animal Planet and Romance Classics he must reject because of tight channel capacity.

Just a year ago, Hindery reasoned, the buzz centered on the coming digital explosion of niche channels.

“There were supposed to be so many spots available that we’d just be giving ‘em out,” Hindery said Tuesday. “But the digital world isn’t what it was portrayed (to be) last year. And I’m afraid it’s niche channels that will have to suffer.”

Once digital technology is implemented and he is able to squeeze several channels into the space taken up currently by a single analog slot, Hindery surmises that he will use that room for “maybe 100 pay-per-view video channels. And that’s why it’s a whole lot harder this year to hear friends pitching me channels I can’t do anything with.”

What happened to limitless choice? It seems the industry is coming to the rapid conclusion that “people basically watch the same six or seven channels over and over,” said Bernard Gallagher, prexy and chief operating officer for Century Communications Corp.

So as has become increasingly apparent over the past year, a fledgling network looks a lot more attractive to systems operators if they arrive with cash in hand.

“A question we have to ask is how much can we get from non-subscriber revenues with the new channels,” Gallagher said. “I want to know how much they will subsidize me to carry that channel.”

Mind you, this was purported to be a panel session about content. Aside from a few questions aimed at MTM Entertainment CEO Tony Thomopolous about whether cable could make a show with as much quality as “ER,” the issue was more one of channel capacity and bandwidth.

The tough choices facing the cable industry will surely be among the chief topics at the show that runs through Friday. The usual assortment of heavyweights will be on hand (TCI chairman John Malone and Time Warner Inc. vice chairman Ted Turner are skedded to appear on a panel Thursday). The new all-sports network CNN/SI will have its switch thrown at the show Thursday at 5 p.m.

This morning’s opening general session, moderated by Paul Kagan Associates prexy Paul Kagan, is slated to feature Liberty Media Corp. prexy and CEO Peter Barton, Bloomberg prexy and CEO Michael Bloomberg, Turner Broadcasting chairman, prexy and CEO Terence McGuirk and NBC Cable prexy Thomas Rogers.

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