NEW YORK — TBS has drawn up a rate card for its transformation from a superstation to a basic cable network in four months that could funnel $100 million a year to the channel by the end of 1998.
Although Turner Broadcasting declined to comment on TBS’ plans, cable operators who’ve heard the pitch say the date for the changeover is June 30. That’s when the rate card calls for operators to start paying a monthly fee of 6¢ per subscriber as part of an overall 5-1/2-year deal to continue carrying TBS. In 1998, the monthly subfee jumps to 18¢, climbing by an average of 3¢ a month each year through 2002, when the tariff will hit 29¢.
Commitments in place
TBS already has a commitment from the two largest cable operators, John Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc. and Turner’s parent company, Time Warner, which together account for 36% or so of all subscribers in the U.S.
Other operators say Turner is making the argument that cable systems already pay a stiff fee to carry TBS. The only difference is that the money now goes to the Copyright Royalty Tribunal (which helps compensate the distributors of the network’s programs) and to the company that transmits TBS’ signal, Southern Satellite Corp. Those fees would disappear on June 30, TBS is arguing, so it’s not as though cable operators would be writing monthly checks for the first time.
Another Turner selling point is that each cable system will begin getting commercial time within the TBS schedule to sell locally. According to the rate card, these local spots kick off in 1998, with cable systems receiving one minute an hour. In 2000, stations pick up an extra 30-second unit in each hour, and by 2001 they’ll get up to the limit of two local minutes an hour, which is the industry standard for most of the widely circulated basic-cable networks.
Turner is also bragging about all of the high-powered programming coming to TBS’ schedule, particularly sitcom reruns such as “Friends,” “Roseanne,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “The Cosby Show,” “Full House” and “Coach.”
The one potential hurdle that could force TBS to postpone its transformation to 1998 or later is the availability of Atlanta Braves baseball games. (Time Warner owns the Braves.) As a superstation, TBS telecasts about 125 Braves games a year, and the network wants to carry about 100 when it stops being a superstation.
But ESPN and FX, which share the national cable rights to Major League Baseball, are reluctant to give their approval because the glut of games hurts every network’s rating. If no agreement is reached, the June 30 date would go by the boards, sources say, causing TBS to remain a superstation at least for the rest of the year.