Cable upstarts set to bow

Channels vie for distribution

After a year of record viewership levels for ad-supported cable networks, the battleground is already set for the cable newcomer matches of 2000. In the first two quarters of the year, a handful of upstart networks will set out to challenge the reigning champions on cable.

In an increasingly competitive environment where analog apertures are relatively few and far between, the race for distribution between established channels and newcomers will continue to intensify.

Oxygen on the air

Geraldine Laybourne’s Oxygen Media will launch its femme-targeted cable network on Feb. 2 in some 8 million-10 million homes.

Hoping to lure viewers from Lifetime, which has more than 75 million subscribers, Oxygen promises to revolutionize women’s television with themed programming blocks intended to inspire female viewers. Oxygen has already scored carriage deals with AT&T Broadband & Internet Services, MediaOne, Insight Communications and Charter Communications.

In another direct battle for distribution and audiences, two new soap opera networks — Sony’s SoapCity and Disney/ABC’s Soap Net — will go head to head.

SoapCity will feature primetime repeats of that day’s episodes of the CTTG-owned soap operas “The Young & the Restless” and “Days of Our Lives.”

The core of SoapNet’s primetime schedule will consist of same-day repeats of the four serials now running in daytime on Disney’s ABC Network: “General Hospital,” “All My Children,” “One Life to Live” and “Port Charles.”

Soap bubbles

The cable soap nets hope to benefit from the fact that traditional sudser fans who work during the day will be anxious to catch up on their favorite storylines during primetime. But the real question is whether they’ll get the distribution they need. So far, cable operators have questioned the need for even one soap opera channel, let alone two.

Meanwhile, the National Geographic Channel, which reaches 50 million homes in 57 countries, has firmed up plans to engineer its American debut, signing long-term deals with AT&T Broadband, the second-largest cable operator in the U.S., and with DirecTV, the biggest U.S. satellite distrib of cable networks.

The channel — a partnership between the National Geographic Society, NBC and News Corp.’s Fox Entertainment Group — plans to make a frontal assault on the Discovery Channel. It hopes to harvest at least 7.5 million AT&T/DirecTV subscribers by the second quarter of 2000, when National Geographic will officially kick off the channel.

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