IS THE Washington area finally catching up with the evolution of television?
Despite the hoopla about cable TV, pay TV, subscription TV, two-way TV, unlimited channels, a camera in every pot, and other video innovations, most Washingtonians haven't seen the results of any of this on their screens. A typical viewing choice in Washington is still whether to watch the news or "The Newlywed Game" at 7.
There are signs of imminent change. Two cable systems are seeking viewers on the Virginia side of the Washington area. A microwave pay TV channel, already reaching 12,000 sets throughout the Washington area, is finally moving into single homes. One regularly broadcast station, Channel 20, wants permission to air its prime-time schedule on a subscription basis. A black-oriented firm is trying to originate a subscription station on Channel 50.
The price for those services that are already going begins with an installation fee and continues with monthly fees ranging from $7.95 to $16.90. Most of the programs on these new channels are not very different from the ones on the old channels, though they are interrupted considerably less. However, as the systems spread, new programs and completely new uses of the set may develop.
Here's a look at what's happening on and off the screens of the local alternatives to the regularly broadcast channels:
Channel 8 of the "A" cable TV system in Reston is a most open-minded television station. According to production manager Tom Bartelt, "Anyone who has an idea for a show and the motivation to carry it off can do it here," provided it doesn't violate any FCC rules.
It's also the most local TV station around Washington. The Reston Community Association Board of Directors meets in the Channel 8 studio so its sessions can be televised live.
Channel 8 is also adventurous -- it presents locally written and produced adult drama, and it gave a legally blind camerawoman her first television job.Except for Bartelt, everyone who works there is a volunteer.
Channel 8 is the most enterprising feature of the cable system that was built into the original plans for the "new town" of Reston. There are currently around 5,500 subscribers to the Reston system. In addition to Channel 8, Warner has brought these people 11 uncut movies a month and occasional nightclub specials and golf lessons on its "Star Channel," Associated Press news and stock information, 24-hour weather reports and all the local and Baltimore stations.
But 8 is by far the most innovative channel. It is staffed by 25 or 30 volunteers, with Bartelt serving as teacher as well as manager; most of his workers have no previous television experience. He has taught camera operators their jobs over the headset while they were actually shooting shows. He remembers one kid who came in "almost by accident" and soon "could do almost everything required to put on a professional show except for driving the mobile van. He wasn't old enough for that."
Bartelt has no sure way of knowing how many people are watching, but he points out that "if there is any audience at all, it's worth it. If we've got 500 people watching a public meeting, that's 400 more than the number who would watch it without us."
That's not enough people to satisfy advertisers, but Coca-Cola Bottling Co. does advertise on Channel 8's most popular show, Herndon High School football. The games are taped on Friday nights and shown on Sunday nights, complete with a trio of sportscasters, band shown on Sunday nights, complete with a trio of sportscasters, band shows, cheerleaders and a few commercials. All this is for a team that went 2-7-1 last year. "They're generally awful," says Bartelt, "but people watch."
This year a Reston Repertory Telvision Company is doing original drama on Channel 8. Their first script is a satirical fantasy set in Reston and scheduled for February, with two more shows planned for spring. Original scripts come in handy, as Channel 8 cannot afford to pay royalties. But recently an elementary school production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," staged in a gym, went out over Channel 8.
Channel 8 presents a half-hour news show once a week, and the news is strictly of Reston. "Reston doesn't generate enough news for a daily show," says Bartelt. Channel 8 also offers a pack of interview shows, including "The Richmond Report," which won a national award from the National Cable Television Association last year.
Some of Channel 8's fare is about as local as television can get. "Pat's Place" originates from Pat Farrell's kitchen. A children's series was called "Skeez" -- a popular word among the younger set of Reston. Channel 8 also covers occasional national stories that come Reston's way, such as the landing of the first Concorde at Dulles.
The station owns two studio cameras and one hand-held minicamera. Almost anyone can handle the cameras during something as stationary as an interview show, but more experienced hands are required for, say, dance programs or a recent tour through a Fairfax Hospital emergency care facility. "We do have a responsibility to provide enough quality so it doesn't look like children playing with Christmas toys," says Bartelt, and occasionally youngsters who were "screwing around with the equipment" have been asked to leave.
Generally, though, anyone is welcome. "We can't afford to hire Laverne and Shirley." says Bartelt.
About a year ago Marquee Television Network took a survey of its customers and found that 97 per cent wanted to see X-rated movies in their living rooms.
"Well, obviously we're not going to put X-rated movies on," says Marquee president Jerry Mattison. "We don't think we have to degrade our product," adds Marquee vice president Steve Wechsler.
However, Marquee decided to do the next best thing -- R-rated specials. A "Spice on Ice" skating revue was one such offering, and recently, when Marquee threw a party to launch its first attempt to reach the single home market, the featured attraction was a screening of "Spectacular Evening in Paris." Aptly described by a Marquee official as a "t-and feathers" show, "Evening in Paris" was offered to Marquee subscribers 12 times last month.
Marquee sees its audience as younger, hipper, more single, more transient than the the family-oriented audiences served by the area's cable systems. Currently its audience is larger, too. Marquee reaches more homes, over a wider area, than any other alternative TV service in the area. Its microwave signal blips through the airwaves to 8,100 apartments and condominiums, 3,000 hotel rooms, and it's also received and distributed by small cable systems in Gaithersburg and La Plata, Md., and Quantico Marine Base.
Now Marquee is moving into another market, testing a variety of antennas on its first few single home customers and planning a full-scale assault on that market next spring.
Marquee presents two movies a night, showing them twice each night and usually repeating them at least once later in the month. Many of them come from Telemation Program Services (TPS), an agency that prepares customized film packages for independent operators like Marquee. TPS is a subsidiary of Time-Life's Home Box Office, the outfit that offers a nationally standardized entertainment package each month to 390 cable systems including ARTEC in Arlington. So the films that appear on Marquee are quite similar to those on ARTEC.
For example, "Smokey and the Bandit" was the featured movie on the covers of the September program guides for both Marquee and Home Box Office. The movie was shown five nights on HBO and six nights on Marquee during September.
However, Marquee maintains that its film package is aimed more precisely at the sophisticated Washington market. Marquee offered "Black and White in Color," "Cousin, Cousine," "Small Change," "Night Full of Rain" and "a sex romp" called "Catherine & Co." in the same month that it presented "Smokey and the Bandit." The only foreign film on HBO's schedule that month was "A Special Day."
Marquee began in 1975. A year ago, say Marquee officials, it went into the black. Because it only programs one channel, some cable officials predict that Marquee and similar services will fade as cable blooms.
Mattison, who operated three cable systems prior to becoming president of Marquee, disagrees. Costs of cabling densely populated urban areas will be prohibitive for a long time, he says. If viewers can get their current broadcast channels plus uncut movies through Marquee, asks Mattison, why will they pay for cable? Marquee is avoiding entering the single home market in Arlington or Reston. But Marquee vice president Wechsler says when Washington's cable officials "see what we're doing, they get ants in their pants."
The first test case of whether cable can work in Washington's urban areas is taking place in Arlington.
The Arlington county board approved a cable TV ordinance in February 1971 and granted a franchise to the Arlington Telecommunications Corporation (ARTEC) to run the cable system in March 1973. Due to delays, notably an attempt by three of Washington's commercial television stations to deny ARTEC the necessary FCC approval, ARTEC didn't begin its programming until last August. And the cabling of Arlington County will not be complete before 1980.
So far, only the east central part of the county is cabled, and around 2,000 subscribers have signed up. But ARTEC officials predict that eventually around 30 per cent of the county's 70,000 television homes will subscribe to ARTEC's service, which is called Metrocable.
The Arlington ordinance was known as a tough one because of its original allocation of eight channels to use by the public and public institutions. However, none of the seven channels eventually assigned to the schools, the county and the public under ARTEC has been activated. County and school officials say they are waiting for more schools and homes to be cabled.
Metrocable's two biggest drawing cards so far have been Home Box Office and the Metrocable shopper's guide, says John Evans, ARTEC vice president and chief operating officer.
Home Box Office presents uncut movies, many of them also available on Marquee or Reston's "Star Channel." But HBO presents a greater variety of other entertainment than ARTEC's local competitors do. Last month a raw and raucous special starring Robin "Mork" Williams in his nightclub act was on HBO four times. It was part of a series called "On Location," which last month also presented two other comedy specials, four music specials, the Sugar Ray Leonard-Bernie Prado fight, two college basketball games, an NFL highlights show and an "acrosport" competition.
Second to HBO in popularity on Metrocable is the shoppers' guide on Channel 25. Once a week eight local grocery stores are visited by a research team working for a firm hired by ARTEC. Prices for individual items and total bills are listed on the screen next to the store's name, in order of ascending prices.
Metrocable's satellite earth station enables it to receive independent stations from Atlanta and San Francisco, some of the sports programming from Madison Square Garden and the Christian Broadcasting Company from Virginia Beach. A Chicago station may be added soon. Metrocable also offers the United Press International Newstime service and other 24-hour news, stock and weather reports; a satellite weather picture of the area; and an Arlington Bulletin Board for community events.
ARTEC has big plans for the future. As soon as a way to lay cable between the Capitol and Arlington is devised, ARTEC hopes to be the originating facility for nationwide gavel-to-gavel satellite transmission of House of Representatives sessions. ARTEC and the county also plan to use ARTEC facilities to monitor Arlington traffic and control stoplights according to the traffic flow.
All that will take time, however. Cable tends to develop slower than its own publicity. Evans himself must go to his office on Wilson Boulevard in order to watch Metrocable; he lives in Fairfax County, which isn't close to being cabled.
There is one other possibility for alternative TV in this area: subscription TV, in which a regularly broadcast station airs part of its schedule in a scrambled signal, so only those sets with decoders can pick it up. WDCA (Channel 20) has asked the FCC for permission to convert its prime time schedule to a subscription basis, but the application is bogged down until another issue can be decided -- whether two subscription stations can be licensed to the same town.
A black-oriented group called Channel 50, Inc. filed an application in 1974 with the FCC, asking permission to begin a subscription station on Channel 50. Two years later Channel 50 requested that the FCC waive its rule restricting subscription TV to one station per city. Channel 20 supports that request.
If subscription TV begins, the programming will be much like the uncut movies and sports available on cable and Marquee. Though Ted Ledbetter, the leader of the Channel 50 effort, says his station would broadcast more local and minority programs, with more "positive" images than are available on commercial TV, he acknowledges that he would rely on movies and sports to attract an audience.
Ledbetter says he has enough financial support if he ever gets a go-ahead from the FCC, but others doubt that any subscription station could raise enough capital to start from scratch in Washington.
Some doubt whether any alternative TV is going to get off the ground in the Washington area -- the regular signals are strong enough here, they say, and anyway, it's debatable whether the alternatives will add as much variety to our lives in practice as they do in theory.
But the foothold has been gained, and any day now you may be asked to buy these pioneer alternatives to the news and the newlyweds.