A costly battle for the area's pay television market begins for the first time in earnest this week as Washington's first subscription television station launches a massive advertising campaign in preparation for its debut this Sunday.
With cable television reaching less than 10 percent of the area's homes, the only pay television alternative in metropolitan Washington has been Marquee, the microwave service, that feeds Home Box Office programming primarily to apartments and hotels.
The newcomer is Subscription Television of Greater Washington, which will be marketed as Super TV and primarily show uncut movies. The subscription station is a joint venture of Field Communications Inc., a subsidiary of Field Enterprises Inc., the media conglomerate which owns the Chicago Sun-Times, and Subscription Television of America, a company controlled by Texas oil millionare Clint Murchison Jr. It will broadcast over UHF Channel 50 beginning at 7 p.m. each night, but will require installation of a decoding device to unscramble the picture signal.
Initially, however, the coming of subscription television will result in a major advertising battle here between Super TV, Marquee, and Marquee's affiliate, Home Box Office, the Time Inc. programming network that is the largest service of its kind in the country. "There's going to be a healthy bidding war" for customers here, said Steven Wechsler, executive vice president of Marquee.
Super TV has signed with the Los Angeles advertising agencies of Della Femina, Travisano and Admarketing to run a $1.4 million advertising campaign on radio, television and in print. In addition, the company has hired the Washington and New York firm of Marston and Rothenberg Public Affairs Inc. to handle its public relations.
The moves are part of an ambitious campaign to sign up 50,000 subscribers by December 1982, according to Nancy Craig, the subscription station's marketing director. Super TV has also set a goal of reaching 12 percent to 15 percent of the viewing area's 1.4 million homes over the next three years. lso making its debut Sunday, at an as-yet undetermined time several hours before Super TV begins broadcasting, will be a unique service provided by Washington entrepreneur Theodore Ledbetter, who promises a "new generation of television station."
Ledbetter, an engineer, filmmaker and one-time station operator in the Virgin Islands, owns Channel 50 and holds its license to operate as WCQR-TV. He has pledged to use Channel 50 to broadcast "free-form video," an eclectic mix of variety shows and other fare created by what Ledbetter describes as a large number of independent producers here, many who have had difficulty getting existing commercial stations to air their programming.
With a $3 million studio and transmitter, Ledbetter says the station will be utilizing state-of-the-art graphics and other television technology.
"We're the first generation of managers who grew up on television," he said. "I'm not in it for the money. I'm in it because I'm a communicator who has had a difficult time getting stations to show my programs. We will see what people in the area come up with."
Ledbetter said he can afford to put his "free-form" operation together without initially selling advertising because he has a long-term contract leasing the Channel 50 frequency to Super TV at night.
The introduction of the two new services means the metropolitan area will now have two dramatically different television options to existing commercial programming--widely available pay television and a new experimental station--potentially the most significant change in the city's television mix in many years.
Installation of the decoder for the subscription service will cost $49.95, with a refundable $25 deposit. (Ledbetter's Channel 50 programming will not require special equipment.) Super TV has an installation and service contract with local Montgomery Ward & Co. stores, which will install and also help market the service at its retail stores.
The monthly Super TV fee has been set at $19.95, with an additional $4.95 for an "adult" service of uncut "R" rated films to be broadcast no earlier than 11 p.m. each night. uper TV's primary fare will be films, largely movies never before shown on television. This month's fare includes "Ordinary People," "Fame," "Manhattan," and "La Cage Aux Folles." There will be some overlapping programming between Super TV and Marquee, although the subscription firm pledges a schedule of 56 films this month, a figure that will rise to 62 in December, about twice Marquee's usual total.
In addition, Super TV has announced plans to show major college basketball games not available on commercial television, including four in December. The games will be picked up from Home Entertainment Network, a consortium of outlets that will feed the games to other pay services. Super TV is planning some entertainment specials, locally developed programming and the possibility of bidding against local commercial stations for some local sporting events.
"Washington is a sophisticated market and the pay TV programming will be tailored to this city," said Thomas Thompson, president of Subscription Television of Greater Washington. "I think this is an upscale market that has a perceived need for alternative television viewing that will find the lack of commercial interference and the quality of the programming both very attractive and worth paying for."
Although Marquee, founded in 1975, has focused on apartments and hotels, it has also begun a campaign to sign up single-family homes. However, that effort is plagued by the steep $125 installation cost and additional $25 deposit. Marquee has a six- to eight-week waiting list.
Nevertheless, Marquee's Wechsler pledged that the company will announce a lower single-home installation fee in about 30 days. Currently, Marquee serves about 400 properties with access to 100,000 apartment and condominium units and another 30 hotels in the metropolitan area, he said. The service is also adding about 1,200 to 1,500 units a month, Wechsler said.
Wechsler said Marquee has a number of advantages over the subscription plan. One is cost, since Marquee's monthly fee is $14.95. Second, Marquee will begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week on Jan. 1. Currently, Marquee offers 24-hour service only on weekends, while Super TV will be on from 7 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. Monday through Friday and from 3 p.m. to a similar hour on Saturday and Sunday.
Finally, HBO is a "national brand product. HBO does its own advertising and we can utilize their expertise in marketing and programming," Wechsler said, adding that Marquee will be able to capitalize on HBO's reputation and list of exclusive films and events like major fights. ut officials of the two firms recognize that to a certain extent the services they are offering are similar, although Craig noted that in many areas with high cable television penetration close to a third of the subscribers buy more than one pay service.
"We going to be a strong and potent competitior," Thompson said, adding that winning the competitive battle would not necessarily mean eliminating the other service from the market. "It's up to both of us to position ourselves," he said.
But Wechsler pointed out that "no one medium has ever replaced another," noting that the advent of television did not kill radio. "There is enough room for many technologies," he said. "A lot of it will rely on good business sense."
Wechsler said Marquee is also looking at a variety of other services, including use of satellites in a direct satellite-to-home service in a few years, expanding the firm's technical capacity so that more channels can be offered and possibly using the microwave network to link buildings or businesses.