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Sorting through 90 channel choices.
By Steve Kenny |

ORSON WELLES is a man who can sell no wine before its time, but when it comes to cable television, he’s chomping at the bit.

“I don’t like waiting,” Welles growls from the depths of your television’s picture tube in a recent commercial pitch for Preview Subscription TV. “And with Preview Subscription TV, now you don’t have to wait for cable. You can get now what you’ve been waiting for.”

Welles has been making the pitch for Preview for several months, taking advantage of the delay in Dallas’ cable bid caused by the April cable election. Warner Amex, which was granted the Dallas franchise last fall, survived the referendum challenge sponsored by Sammons Communications, the homegrown cable supplier that serves Fort Worth, Duncanville, and the Park Cities, but which was denied the Dallas franchise.

With Warner Amex’s election victory in April, Preview Subscription TV and its three pay television competitors are getting a little antsy. All four subscription television outlets have profited from the unsettled Dallas franchise, but the future of all four will be in doubt once Warner Amex turns on next January.

When the first houses are plugged into the Warner Amex system, Dallas television viewers will have more channels to choose from than any television viewers in the entire nation.

Besides the three commercial affiliates (Channels 4, 5, and 8), the public television station (Channel 13), and the two commercial independent stations (Channels 11 and 39), Dallas and Fort Worth viewers will have the choice of the four subscription television stations, three of which offer free programming during certain hours, and the up to 80 channels offered through the Warner Amex system.

For the true video junkie, who would have to be willing to pay hundreds of dollars in monthly fees for all the above-listed programming, more than 90 channels would be available every day. But there is little chance that any individual will end up with that many choices.

The four subscription television outlets (known as S-TV in the trade) duplicate offerings. All four mainly offer current movies, with occasional concert and sports specials. Warner Amex also offers three different movie channels, depending on which “tier” of the Warner Amex system the discerning video-maniac purchases.

“There has been an explosion in the pay television market,” says Mary Barrow, spokeswoman for Golden West Broadcasting, the Gene Autry-owned company that operates VEU subscription television six hours a day over Channel 33.

“With the four pay television operations and now cable being approved, that makes Dallas the most competitive television market in the country,” Ms. Barrow says.

VEU operates in only two markets in the United States – Dallas and Oklahoma City-and rather than retreat from the challenge of Warner Amex, VEU has entrenched itself in a multimillion dollar facility in Grand Prairie. The other three -Showbiz, Preview, and ONTV-have done the same.

“We’re in this market to stay,” Ms. Barrow says. “We just didn’t enter this market to make a lot of money because it looked like cable was going to be delayed. We had planned to be here a long time before that.”

But no matter what has caused the explosion of pay TV outlets in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, their proliferation and the imminent arrival of Warner Amex has sparked a video and lifestyles revolution that even Orson Welles won’t have to wait long for.

In the ensuing video wars – as pay television outlets, Warner Amex, and the traditional commercial stations battle for viewers’ time and advertisers’ money – some of the stations are bound to go dark. The only guaranteed winners are the consumers, who are profiting from the most intense media concentration in the nation.

“We don’t see the future of cable or S-TV in the entertainment field,” says Anne Hall, vice president of public affairs of the Warner Amex Dallas franchise.

“We see the future of all television services to be in home security,” she says. “We see it in shopping at home. We see it in services like the one already operating in Louisville, where subscribers can place off-track bets from their living rooms. Of course, we don’t see that sort of thing happening in Dallas.”

Anne (pronounced Annie) Hall doesn’t look like the leader of a revolution, but that’s what she promises Dallas. She looks like the small-town Ohio native that she is. You see many Dallas secretaries downtown who dress flashier than Ms. Hall, even though she reportedly received a $75,000 bonus for landing the Dallas franchise for Warner Amex. (Warner Amex, incidentally, is a joint effort of Warner Communications Corp. and American Express.)

When the citywide cable system is completed four years from now, Ms. Hall estimates that one half of the 400,000 homes in Dallas will be equipped with cable television the Warner Amex way. Most of those homes will be connected with the vaunted Qube, a two-way television system pioneered in Columbus, Ohio, that allows subscribers to talk back to their television sets.

Qube is in the “third tier” of the Warner Amex system, and it is the most expensive. It allows subscribers to shop, bank, and even go to school without ever leaving their living rooms. The first and second “tiers” in the Warner Amex system are less expensive and offer fewer channels. They do not include the highly sophisticated Qube system.

So far, Qube has been tried on a large-scale only in Columbus. Ms. Hall thinks it will be a smashing success in Dallas.

“The Qube system is like introducing banking machines,” she says. “The most difficult thing in getting people to use those machines was weaning them away from the teller. In Qube, you have to wean them from passive viewing and get them talking back.

“You have to reeducate the general public that television is not a passive experience,” she says. “You’ve got to do this. It will go over in Dallas because of the kind of people who live here -people with high-tech occupations. People who are willing to spend the money for a D/FW Airport and an I.M. Pei city hall. If Dallas won’t talk back to us through Qube, we know it’s going to be pretty lonely place for Qube.”

But before the average Victor and Vivian Video of Dallas can decide on all the television alternatives available, they need some sort of guide to help them out. The following is just a preliminary consumer’s guide to cable and subscription television since Warner Amex has not switched on yet.

Warner Amex Tier I. Installation fee is free if you sign up within the first 30 days that cable is offered in your neighborhood. After that, installation, a one-time-only fee, is $15. Tier I offers 24 channels, which include the local commercial and public television stations, four educational access channels, and one channel that offers accredited courses from the Dallas County Community College District. Cost is $2.95 per month. Family Features, a movie channel featuring G- and PG-rated films, is an additional $4.95, and GalaVision, a Spanish-language movie channel, is an additional $5.95.

Warner Amex Tier II. Installation fee costs the same as Tier I. Offers 48 channels, including Tier I offerings, a Spanish news channel, a channel featuring live sessions of the U.S. House of Representatives, a 24-hour color radar weather channel, a 24-hour sports channel, and independent stations WGN from Chicago and WTBS, Ted Turner’s Atlanta “super station.” Tier II offers the same extras as Tier I, plus The Movie Channel for $7.45 extra a month, and Home Box Office for $7.45 extra a month. Tier II’s base cost is $7.50 a month. So ifyou want Tier II and HBO, it will cost you $14.95 a month.

Warner Amex Tier III. Installation costs the same as Tiers I and II. Offers 80 channels, including all channels broadcast over Tiers I and II plus stocks and market news, Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, a Dallas business station, four professional educational channels, and a channel featuring local sports, theater, ballet, and symphony. Tier Ill’s premier feature is Qube, the Warner Amex talk-back system that allows subscribers to shop, check out library books, and bank through their television sets. The basic rate for Tier III, including Qube, is $9.95 per month. Charges for Tier I and Tier II extras are the same for Tier III. Tier III also offers Showtime, which features current movies, concerts, and Broadway shows for $7.45 a month. Tier III also includes three “pay-per-view” stations -a vintage film channel, a recent movie channel, and a “self-improvement” channel-that charge viewers after more than three minutes.

VEU. Operates over Channel 33 from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends. VEU was the first pay television operation in Dallas. It went on the air last November, before the Dallas cable television franchise had been granted. More than 80 per cent of their offerings is recent movies, but VEU offered Dallas Mavericks basketball games during the last season, and offers concerts and other “entertainment” specials. Installation, a one-time-only fee, is $49.95. Monthly costs are $19.95. A special lock-out device to keep the kids away from the R-rated movies is available for $15, also a onetime-only charge. VEU requires a $35 equipment deposit.

Preview. Broadcast over Channel 27 Monday through Thursday from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Preview’s offerings are 95 per cent movies, with some sports and news. Installation is $49.95. Monthy rates are $19.95. Lock-out device available for $15. There is no deposit.

ONTV. Operates over Channel 21 from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays and from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends. About 90 per cent movies. Installation fee is $49.95, and monthly rates are $19.95. No lock-out device available. Deposit is $25. ONTV boasts the most number of subscribers, acquired through a clever promotion scheme last winter, when it offered The Deer Hunter and several other recent blockbusters for free. That ploy got a lot of viewers’ attention. Channel 21 has also tried to build viewer interest by programming a popular base of reruns like The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle during its public access broadcasting hours.

Showbiz. Operates over Channel 3 from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. weekends. Showbiz operates over the only channel that does not also offer free programming during the day. Offers only 18-month contracts that include a $99.95 installation fee and monthly rates of $18.95. No deposit and no lock-out device available. Offers 80 per cent movies and 20 per cent children’s programming. Showbiz offers an average of 35 new titles per month; the other three offer about 50 new movie titles per month.

On the surface, it appears that cable is less expensive per month than the pay television outlets. But if subscribers want the movies on cable that are available through the pay television, the costs are about eaual.

Orson Welles is right about the time element. It will be four years before cable is available in most North Dallas neighborhoods. Preview, Showbiz, and VEU, however, all promise installation within a week. ONTV says installation takes from three to four weeks.

As cable is slowly introduced in Dallas during the next four years, Mary Barrow of VEU expects the subscription stations to diversify their programming away from movies to public service programs and independently produced entertainment products. Golden West, for example, not only owns VEU but also owns a production company that produced the Academy Award winning short subject, Scared Straight. Ms. Barrow predicts Golden West will produce more and more subjects for VEU as the competition for theatrical products increases.

Another effect of the video revolution probably will be smaller audiences for the commercial outlets, which for 25 years have had a virtual stranglehold on the television markets. There always will be a need for commercial television networks, and the fact that they are included in the cable offerings are proof that they will survive.

The next 10 years will be crucial ones for the television industry, faced with competition from cable and subscription television. There are no guarantees about how the industry will survive the revolution, although the television offerings of 1991 are likely to bear little resemblance to those of 1981.

“You can be sure that if cable or anything like it is going to survive this market shift that it’s not going to offer 80 channels of Mork & Mindy,” Anne Hall says.

But the changes aren’t going to happentomorrow, no matter what Orson Wellespromises.

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