Mulch ado about retrans and garden-variety TV

TWO MONTHS AGO, this space ran a column mocking the explosion of fictitious new cable channels by the year 1999.

We were off by about six years.

Fueled by retransmission consent negotiations, in which cable operators have designated new channels as their method of paying stations to carry their signal by a means other than cash, a wave of bizarre cable services have been announced that continue the trend of turning television into a genre-fragmented medium like radio.

So far, there’ve been such memorable new entries offered as the Food Network, the Home & Garden Network and ESPN2, a sports channel for all those sports you don’t see enough of on ESPN, like windsurfing and roller hockey.

NBC, which already has CNBC to its credit, has announced another talk channel called America’s Talking, not to be confused with Multimedia’s all-talk channel. Although it’s unrelated to retrans, let’s not forget that two gameshow channels also have been announced, ensuring that Bob Barker’s face will be coming into homes well into the 21st century.

CBS, having been rebuffed in its efforts to obtain cash payments, finally relented and said it will launch a news channel. While short on particulars (observers say even CBS, down to the wire on the retrans issue, doesn’t know exactly what it will be), reports have indicated that the service wouldn’t directly compete with CNN, relying more on archival footage. Great, just what America needs –“A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney” collected into a daily hour feature, followed by “The Best of Mike Wallace’s Ambush Interviews.”

Fox Inc. helped pave the way for all this nonsense by hatching a plan that called for incorporating Fox Broadcasting Co. affiliates. Unfortunately, those same affils fretted about whether the basic channel would diminish their franchise, asking that Fox not use a name like “FOX II” to prevent confusion in ratings diary markets.

Using Solomon-like wisdom, Fox dropped a letter and came up with FX — a strange name for a network unless it’s going to run all Bryan Brown movies. Obviously, “OX” was out of the question unless Fox planned a livestock channel, but someone may have erred in not giving the third alternative, “FO,” more thought, as in, “This channel is FO U.”

How to fill all these channels when existing broadcast networks can barely put together a full night of decent programming is anybody’s guess. In fact, the two aspects of the television equation that seem to be utterly lost in this proliferation of viewing alternatives are, A) how to program them, and B) who’s going to watch them.

Advertisers, of course, can tie directly into a targeted network. Cable systems can use new services to fill channels as capacity increases, and broadcasters can pick up extra cash by funneling a small part of their resources into these services.

Still, what exactly can one use to program a 24-hour Food Network or Home & Garden Network? Isn’t a weekly show like “This Old House” or Julia Childs enough , or do people bolt upright in the middle of the night and say: “My God, what sort of fertilizer should I be using? Quick, Marge, turn on the TV!”

The desperation surrounding the creation of all these channels underscores the unseen problems inherent in TV regulation. Cable operators and broadcasters, presented with the choice between must-carry and retransmission consent, were forced to look for some solution, any solution, with millions of dollars hanging in the balance.

The major complicating factor in the retrans negotiations, however, has been old-fashioned, testosterone-based male ego, with the cable operators on one side saying, “We won’t pay,” and the broadcasters on the other saying, “Yes, you will.”

The half-baked compromise –“OK, we’ll pay, just not directly”– is further proof that the only thing that changes about boys is the size of their toys.

LATE SHOW WITH … TOM BROKAW? It seemed somehow appropriate that while CBS anchor Dan Rather was in North Carolina talking about Hurricane Emily, NBC counterpart Tom Brokaw had the savvy to appear on the premiere of CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” Monday, delivering one of the inaugural show’s most amusing moments.

The appearance underscored the fallacy of “The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather & Connie Chung’s” stated strategy that moving Rather out of the studio means anything to the viewer, other than that by sending Rather to floods, hurricanes and earthquakes we get the rare opportunity to see him with his hair mussed up.

As a “Late Show” postscript, the hour seemed a bit too self-conscious with all its self-directed gags and the staged feel of the Bill Murray segment. That was perhaps unavoidable after all the hoopla but still a drawback that will doubtless diminish as Letterman settles in over the coming weeks.

SMELLING THE GLOVED ONE: It took the afore-mentioned hurricane, by the way, to chase Michael Jackson out of his leadoff position on KNBC-TV’s late news.

Channel 4 clearly wanted to “own” the Jackson story, not only leading with it last Tuesday through Thursday but each night running at least 10 minutes of coverage before breaking to another topic.

Granted, the media has been awash in idiotic Jackson reporting (on Monday “A Current Affair” tracked Elizabeth Taylor on a plane to Singapore, filming her with hand-held cameras) — particularly in light of the fact that Jackson still hasn’t been charged with anything.

America’s Talking may be NBC’s answer to the retrans debate, but who knows, maybe KNBC could cut its own deal for a local channel –“MJR: All Michael Jackson rumors, all the time.” Small wonder that when the station says it wants to put out a serious newscast, it’s hard to take the proclamation very seriously.

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