From the class of the performing arts to people performing sex for video cameras, it seems as if many Americans are lining up to do their thing for cable television.
There's the Portuguese channel in Massachusetts, the Jewish shows in California, a variety of educational, cultural and film networks, 24-hour news and sports networks, and there are shows in Manhattan with hosts evaluating the latest available strains of marijuana and asking women to disrobe on the city's streets. And that's just a small sampling.
With the promise and development of cable televsion systems offering dozens of channels, old and new television programmers are looking for things -- some say anything -- to put on the air. New players in the cable game are entering the market left and right.
Combine the availability of outlets with the ability to offer shows without commercials and without censorship, and it is easy to see why those who want to market their talents on video see cable as a golden opportunity.
Also deeply interested in the future of cable television are those who want to market products and services. As an advertising medium and, through "two-way" cable systems, as a direct sales and service mechanism, cable television has enormous business potential. Some subscribers are part of experiments enabling them to bank and shop via the cable.
In addition, local governments, politicians and civic activists of various persuasions see cable television as a means of distributing to the citizenry a plethora of viewpoints, neighborhood news, municipal meetings, educational shows and other services that could ultimately have a dramatic effect on the nation's economic and intellectual marketplace.
But as the cable industry moves, through a deliberate, multibilliondollar process to wire much of the nation, many questions have been raised about whether the potentially sweeping changes the widespread development of cable could bring to business, education, entertainment, and public affairs will come to pass.
While some question the upper limits the public is willing to spend for home entertainment and related video services, others have suggested that cable will eventually become a mere extension of conventional broadcasting, dominated by the dual powers of ratings and advertising. Other media figures have suggested that perhaps the public is not ready for the proliferation of these over-the-cable options.
"There is a potentially serious gap between the technological possibility and marketplace support; because we can provide it, it does not mean that someone wants it," said Raymond Joslin, president of the California Cable Television Association.
Religious, civic and broadcasting leaders have led a chorus of sharp criticism of the industry for its liberal marketing of "adult" programming, which has taken the sexual innuendo and the bedroom foray of commercial television closer to what, in some circles, is considered pornographic.
In fact, at the recent Western Cable Show in Anaheim, Calif., the most popular exhibit appeared to be that of a distributor of sofe-core movies which cable operators viewed with a combination of curiousity and worry. "Escapade," a cable network of R-rated films marketed by Rainbox Programming Services of Denver, sells itself by urging potential viewers to "send the kids to bed." Their promotional literature also pledges: "Every feverish frame of a lustful encounter."
Even more risque is the "Ugly George Hour of Truth, Sex and Violence," which is shown on a cable system in Manhattan. The host, Ugly George, carries a portable video camera around the streets of New York City asking women to disrobe. Many do and the show has a wide following.
Shows like "Ugly George" send fear though the cable hierarchy. "We have to responsibly exhibit the things we have a First Amendment right to show," says Thomas Wheeler, president of the National Cable Television Association.
While the debate over possible restraints over sexually explicit fare on cable intensifies, the cable industry has also spawned the simultaneous development of some of the most widely praised children's and educational programming ever offered on television.
For instance, Warner Amex's "Nickelodeon" is a widely heralded combination or programming for preschoolers and for children between the ages of 7 and 12. The show of up to 14 hours a day reaches about 2.5 million subscribers and was put together by Dr. Vivian Horner, the Warner Amex vice president for program development and one of the creators of "Sesame Street." The USA Network offers "Calliope," a series of children's films to 4.7 million subscribers across the country.
But citizen activists, while noting the value of these shows, also point out that they cannot completely fill cable's potential as an educational medium. The communications office of the United Church of Christ, a longtime broadcasting activist group, notes in a cable advisory report that local programming and access to cable facilities in wired communities is vital.
"National children's cable services like "Nickelodeon" are valuable, but they can never address the needs of local communities," the church group wrote in a paper excerpted in "React," the journal of Action for Children's Television. "Public access provides a way for parents, children and teachers to produce their own programs on their own activities."
"New York has given access a bad name," notes Samuel Simon of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting. "But what access is is the ability to communicate with each other. People will participate in community television if they're given a chance. If they're given a mix of good quality community programming, they'll watch it."
While citizen groups work at developing quality local access programming, basically what cable subscribers see even in the most sophisticated of the current multiple-channel systems, such as the Warner Amex Communications Co. QUBE system in Columbus, Ohio, can be broken down into several categories:
Pay entertainment.By paying a monthly fee and an occasional additional per program fee for "special events," cable subscribers primarily see uncut movies and entertainment specials. The largest of these systems is Time Inc.'s Home Box Office (HBO), the first of these networks to go on the air. HBO has more than 5 million subscribers, both over the cable and via microwave systems, called Multipoint Distribution Service (Mds). The second-largest pay network is Showtime Entertainment, a joint venture of two cable system operators, Viacom International Inc. and Tele-PrompTer Corp., with more than 1.2 million subscribers.
News, information and education. Most cable systems offer printed news, weather and sports on the screen, although Atlantan Ted Turner's Cable News Network (CNN) has dramatically expanded the importance of news on cable television with a 24-hour all-news service.
Sports. Several growing networks are offering a diverse mixture of programming for sports fans, with the Entertainment & Sports Programming Network (ESPN) offering a 24-hour diet of events and sports chatter.
Local and public affairs programming. Many communities have ordered cable systems to set aside channels for locally produced public affairs programming, such as meetings of a city or county council, while other cable systems have put together such packages on their own. The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) offers 35 hours a week of the U.S. House of Representatives and discussions about issues in the news.
Local and distant commercial and public television stations. Under federal regulations, cable systems are still required to show local commercial channels. But, via satellite transmission, Turner's WTBS-TV of Atlanta, WGN-TV of Chicago and WOR-TV of New York are also available on cable systems, with the Turner station the leader with close to 10 million subscribers. These channels primarily offer old movies, syndicated shows, sports and news.
Cultural programming. Culture, based on a recent series of programming announcements, is the wave of the future. Rainbow Programming Services, a Denver group, is offering Bravo, a two-night-a-week cultural channel offspring, featuring symphonies, plays and other events. Meanwhile, CBS Inc.'s CBS Cable and American Broadcasting Companies Inc. (ABC) are in the culture market, planning to launch ambitious programming ventures for cable this year.
There are several basic reasons for the proliferation of dozens of new cable programming ventures. One is that pay television, which may be the force that put cable television on the map several years ago, has proved to be profitable and a wise programming venture for cable operators. Anywhere from two-thirds to 90 percent of the subscribers of newly built cable systems sign up for additional pay service.
Secondly, as the industry's technology has improved, there is a dramatic need to fill the multiple-channel systems being built in major cities across the country and, in fact, being required by franchising municipalities. Some cable systems are even offering more than one pay service, raising subscriber bills but also increasing programming options.
But development of the systems offering 34 or more channels has spurred a debate across the television industry about whether the ultimate answer to filling the cable channels lies in "narrowcasting," or programming aimed at very narrow audiences with specific system operators about the reality of "narrowcasting."
"I just don't buy the premise that the future of cable is in narrow programming," says Cox, whose HBO has blossomed by marketing its own form of mass entertainment. "It gives people a good warm feeling to say that. But there are only so many share points in a given period. The one proven service with the consumer is pay television."
Gustave Hauser, chairman of Warner Amex Cable Communications Co., disagrees. "People want alternatives and are willing to pay for them," he points out. "People will be looking at special-interest channels. I hope there will be junk and better stuff and people will have choices. I think people should have T&A if they want it. But I think there should be opera, too. Every case should be catered to."
Yet, despite the frantic efforts of broadcasting giants like ABC and CBS to garner their share of the cable programming market, the development of other services to the home, such as banking and news, are also key segments of the future of cable television.
In Columbus, which has emerged as the nation's cable television laboratory because of QUBE, a sampling of subscribers later this year will be hooked into CompuServe data banks enabling them to gather news from The Washington Post and The New York Times, stocks, video games, airline and bus information and a variety of services. CompuServe is a subsidiary of H&R Block Inc.
Using a control box supplied by Atari, another Warner property, between the hours of 6 p.m. and 5 a.m., subscribers will have access to this data and will be able for $5 an hour to pull out millions of pieces of information onto their television screens.
But the application of these computer technologies raises significant questions for an industry that had until recently simply regarded its service as that of a transmission mechanism.
"If you see yourself in the cable television business, you're working with a finite technological structure," NCTA's Wheeler said. "But if you view it as the communications business, then you are flexible enough to bend with the technological breeze. Our people are entrepreneurs and they are seeing themselves in a broader light than they did before."
Yet, no matter how cable operators view their industry, systems and their owners will survive and prosper on the basis of profitability. And although advertising has only made a marginal dent in cable television, most experts see an inevitability to an advertising boom accompanying the massive construction of new cable systems.
In 1980, advertising revenues for the cable industry are expected to total about $35 million while total advertising for all television will approach the $12 billion mark. Slowly, that picture is changing, with the primary advertiser interest focusing on national cable networks like the sports programmer ESPN and the Turner all-news network. The NCTA estimates that less than a third of the local systems accept advertising.
What the development of advertiser-supported networks and local systems means, however, is less certain. Clearly, rising revenues of operators as a result of advertising dollars will enable those firms to rebuild the industry's older, increasingly antiquated 12-channel systems.
What the programming mix of the future will be is virtually anybody's guess. Undoubtedly, the development of cable television, its direct competitors and related fields like the video disc, means that the nation's home video options will be greater than ever.
The technologies and companies that survive the competitive battles of the next few years will clearly be in a position to offer the public the best and the worst of the cable connection.