Through 1986, it will not cost anything to tune in the Super Bowl.
So much for sure things.
The remainder of this column will be devoted largely to supposition, since it deals with a subject--the future of sports on cable and pay television--that is currently supposed-about all the time.
Here in Washington, two things happened recently. One of them seems important; the other one is important.
The first was Turner Broadcasting's purchase last month, for an eyebrow-raising $500,000, of prime-time rights to a made-for-TV basketball matchup Dec. 11 between Georgetown and University of Virginia--or more precisely, between superstar centers Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson. This, although it is a big event, portends nothing about the future of sports on cable--except that it will be full of quirks.
For one thing, Ted Turner's WTBS-TV-17 superstation in Atlanta is available to about 22 million homes via cable. (Compare that to network television's potential audience of 82 million homes.) For another, only about 75,000 of those homes are in the Washington area, although there are plans for closed-circuit screens here and elsewhere to make up the difference. Finally, Turner Broadcasting did not enter this deal to make millions in commercial advertising revenue (it, in fact, expects to lose money), nor because it sincerely wanted to improve our lives by showing us Georgetown-Virginia via cable.
Turner and Co. did this because they are looking for clients: new cable systems to spread their signal and advertisers to help support it. Don't look for deeper meaning. Just enjoy the game--if you can get the game.
The important came earlier this week: Fairfax County approved a cable system for its 200,000 homes.
This was not a stunt. This was simple, trumpetless proof that cable--or pay, subscription, direct-broadcast, pay-per-view, nontraditional television--is not going the way of quadraphonic FM radio, but is sneaking us, slowly, into a new era of home entertainment and televised sports.
In the next two years, more than 130,000 Prince George's residents will be wired. Arlington, Alexandria, Gaithersburg and Reston have operating systems, Montgomery County is about to award a very large franchise and even the District of Columbia is putting together a committee to design a specific bidding proposal. Washington already has two subscription television (STV) services, Marquee/HBO and Super TV, with about 70,000 homes hooked up.
Then there's the rest of the country. Currently, about 34 percent of those 82 million TV homes have some kind of cable or pay TV. Some say this figure will rise to 50 percent by . . .
" . . . by August of 1984," said Robert Wussler, the former CBS Television president who now heads Turner's superstation, in a telephone interview from Atlanta.
"Cable will be in 42 million homes by late summer of 1984," Wussler said.
Wussler works for the same superstation that also bid $17 million earlier this year for rights to 16 Saturday night NCAA football games, cable's first prime-time experience with college football.
He thinks there's also a booming business to be done in subscription or pay TV coverage of local and regional sports--major league baseball home games, pro basketball, college basketball and football. There is growing evidence, he says: the Dodgers, Angels and Rams are all to be found on Los Angeles' ON-TV, a 400,000-subscriber pay system. This summer, Eddie Einhorn put his White Sox on a pay system he invented called SportsVision. Long Island has its Sports Channel, Philadelphia its Prism. Washington's Super TV picked up 16 Orioles home games this year--and is delivering them, plus a bunch of movies, to whoever pays $20 a month for a decoder.
The success of much of this depends, of course, on Wussler's final projection:
"By the 1990s," he said, "every home in America will have cable television."
Not everyone shares the optimism.
Special events may indeed have a place in cable's future. But "free" television, some say, is where you ought to find bread-and-butter regular-season sports events--such as the schedule that makes up the bulk of the commercial networks' five-year, $2 billion contract with the NFL, signed last year.
"Cable penetration will be maybe 60 percent by the end of the '90s--but the networks will be in 90 million homes by then," said Don Ohlmeyer, the onetime protege of Roone Arledge who left the presidency of NBC Sports this year to start up his own sports-and-entertainment programming company--for commercial and cable/pay television.
Ohlmeyer, like an increasing number of alternative-television types, draws a thick line between cable and pay-- or pay-per-view--television. He sees sports' future in pay television--services such as Home Box Office or Super TV, which charge a monthly fee for a mix of sports and movies--but especially, he says, in pay-per-view television. Pay-per-view is exactly what it sounds like: you pay for a specific event, say, a fight or a playoff, and then the cable company sends predesignated blips into your home decoder that then, and only then, allows you to receive the event in question.
Only about 2 million cable homes are currently "addressable," as it is called (including, by the way, Super TV's Washington and Baltimore customers). But, as Ohlmeyer says: "We're not in this for short-term opportunities.
"The opportunities in pay television and nontraditional television are very similar today to what the opportunities were in television in the early '50s," he said. "And the people who were most successful then were those who were interested in long-term gains." Addressable systems will develop, he says; they may be cable's biggest hope for profits.
"The ESPNs of this world," said Ohlmeyer, speaking of the 24-hour all-sports cable channel, "and the USA Networks, all of these people dealing in advertiser-supported cable television, I don't see a very bright future for them in sports--because basically they're never going to have the penetration of the networks. They're going to be relegated to covering Australian-rules football.
"A pay system, once you get to the point where you can reach half the homes in America, is really going to be of great benefit to the viewer, and to sports and entertainment," said Ohlmeyer.
"You take a sport like soccer, which does not command a large enough audience for a network to devote prime time to it on a regular basis," he said. "There are some hard-core soccer fans in the country. Now, if 500,000 homes are interested enough in soccer to pay $2 a week to see two or three or four games a week, there's a business there . . ."
ABC's thought about it. "We're trying to be forward-looking," said Jim Spence, the ABC Sports senior vice president who thinks "special events--as opposed to regular, day-in, day-out coverage--are inevitably going to end up on pay cable," although enough homes will not be wired to make it financially worthwhile until "probably the late '80s."
Last September, ABC entered a forward-looking agreement with the Getty-owned ESPN cable sports network to share coverage of certain events--an agreement typified by this year's U.S. Open golf tournament, for which ESPN provided live first- and second-round coverage and left the weekend to ABC.
The agreement also provides the basis for ABC to televise sporting events on a pay-per-view basis, whenever it becomes viable. Only about a million of ESPN's 15 million homes are now addressable, Spence says, but if ABC thought that wouldn't change, the network wouldn't have added the option to its contract with ESPN that allows it at some future date to purchase a percentage of the cable company.
"Clearly the network business is now and will continue to be, in the forseeable future, our basic business. I want to emphasize that fact," said Spence. "On the other hand, at a future point--and I don't think anybody knows when--when pay cable becomes an economically viable situation, we want to at least have a hand in it."