Cablers’ debate adds spice to panel patter

ANAHEIM — The sometimes bitter clash of programming strategies by two pay TV operations — original movies and series on Viacom’s Showtime vs. wall-to-wall Hollywood theatricals on John Malone’s Starz — spilled over into a panel discussion Thursday at the Western Cable Show.

One of the panelists, Jerry Offsay, president of programming for the Showtime Networks, said, “By the time we get a theatrical movie, the people who are interested in it could’ve seen it in the theaters, on videocassette, on pay-per-view, in an airplane or in a hotel room.”

Steve Bell, president of the Encore Entertainment Group, which includes Starz, said that all of Encore’s surveys show that a pay TV subscriber “wants big Hollywood movies. A premium channel is basically a movie channel.” A pay network that shifts to original production, Bell said, “is straying from its purpose.”

By contrast, Showtime’s subscriber research shows that “people don’t like the repeat showings of theatrical movies,” which can run as many as six times over a one-month period in the first burst, Offsay said. To address that complaint, Showtime plans to schedule as many as 30 original movies a year, plus six weekly drama series, led by the MGM/UA-produced “Outer Limits” and “Poltergeist: The Series.”

Can’t beat the big guns

Bell said that the Nielsen ratings of a hit theatrical always are higher than those of an unknown original movie, no matter how many venues people can see it in before it gets to pay TV.

Other sources said the arguments of the two nets are at least somewhat tied to the fact that Showtime has not bid as aggressively on theatricals over the past few years as Starz has.

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