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Eye on People sets its sights on TW ‘carriage’

NEW YORK — CBS’ new cable network Eye on People, which faces a launch date of March 31 with no subscribers on board, claimed on Thursday that it has signed a “carriage agreement” with Time Warner Cable.

But the claim is causing some controversy because a carriage agreement implies a commitment by the cable operator. Insiders say not one TW cable system has agreed to take Eye on People, and none will be required to at any time in the future.

All the agreement really means, sources say, is that Time Warner’s individual cable systems will open their doors to get the pitch by CBS Cable’s affiliate-sales people.

Various sources say each of the TW systems will make its own decision, depending on such factors as 1) whether the programming would appeal to the system’s demographic base; 2) how much money CBS might be willing to pay as part of a launch budget; and 3) if Eye on People can link carriage with a quid pro quo deal for the local CBS-owned or affiliated TV station to get picked up by the TW system.

The last element, which the industry refers to as “retransmission consent,” could end up as CBS’ ace in the hole, although network sources say they’re not going to threaten cable operators with removal of the CBS stations if the ops don’t agree to pick up Eye on People.

It was five years ago when CBS became the prime mover in getting retransmission consent included in the Cable Act of 1992, over the bitter opposition of cable operators like Time Warner and John Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc. Ironically, CBS wound up the only one of the four broadcast networks that failed to take advantage of the act by getting a new network off the ground. (ABC launched ESPN2, NBC kicked off America’s Talking and Fox created FX. America’s Talking later morphed into MSNBC.)

If retrans doesn’t yield results, a network source says another inducement for cable operators is exclusivity: CBS Cable will not sell Eye on People to phone companies that are setting up their own cable systems or to wireless-cable entrepreneurs. However, CBS will try to sell Eye on People to satellite distributors like DirecTV, Primestar and Echostar.

CBS Cable is also promising “a multimillion-dollar advertising and promotion campaign,” highlighted by spots on the CBS TV network and the CBS-owned TV and radio stations.

Billed as an “entertainment-and-information network focused on people and personalities,” Eye on People plans to schedule 14 new series and draw on such CBS names as Charles Kuralt, Paula Zahn and Harry Smith.

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