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Cable Nets Clamor for Spotlight at Critics Tour

6/13/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

They're a captive audience, with more than 100 of them
packed into ice-cold conference rooms at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, Calif. They're
cynical and tough, and a surly audience at times.

But their television reviews reach millions of readers
across the country, and they typically need to file one story every day while they're
here.

All in all, they're a publicist's dream.

Welcome to the twice-yearly Television Critics Association
tour. At this sunny venue, writers from outlets as varied as major metropolitan newspapers
and obscure wire services all gather. In January and July, they're here to see executives
-- and celebrities -- from broadcast and cable networks tout their upcoming programming.

During the cable portion of the tour, which takes up four
days of its two weeks, 15 programmers have what amount to guaranteed or
"grandfathered" slots to do presentations.

Up for grabs are several "rotating" openings that
nongrandfathered cable networks eagerly vie for so that they, too, can get in front of the
critics to tell them about their new shows.

There are usually four of those open slots for cable
networks, but because of special circumstances, there are six available this July.

The competition for those slots was especially fierce. A
total of 18 cable programmers applied for the openings -- more than any other time before
-- according to Scott Broyles, director of public affairs for the National Cable
Television Association, which coordinates the cable portion of the tour.

"That's a record number," Broyles said, adding,
"10 to 12 is more typical."

For this July, the NCTA recently awarded the rotator slots
to: Black Entertainment Television; Courtroom Television Network; The History Channel; E!
Entertainment Television; The Learning Channel and Animal Planet, which will share a
45-minute lot; and Home & Garden Television and Food Network, which will also share a
one-hour slot.

Those programmers, along with the grandfathered networks,
will do panels at the TCA tour from July 15 through 18.

Unlike the big broadcasters, which have been cutting down
their TCA time, cable's demand for TCA slots has been growing, and it is at an all-time
high as more channels get launched.

The NCTA has been working with the TCA to find ways to
squeeze more networks into cable's four days before the TV critics. Many emerging cable
networks, as well as nongrandfathered programming services, maintained that they should
get a chance to shine before the TV writers.

"A rotation is a horrible thing because it suggests
that not everybody is going to go," E! senior vice president of original programming
John Rieber said.

Speedvision and Outdoor Life Network have been trying to
get into the TCA tour for about three years, since they launched, according to Roger
Werner, founder and president of the two channels.

"A number of independents have asked for slots,"
he said, "but it's been very difficult to break into the TCA. It's a very important
group of journalists who cover the industry. It's important for us to be perceived as
[equally] important as our competition."

What especially galls a number of the nongrandfathered
networks -- small and midsized alike -- is the fact that Home Box Office, Showtime
Networks Inc. and Turner Broadcasting System Inc. continue to get long blocks of time at
the TCA tour, typically three hours or more.

Some cable networks argued that HBO and some of the other
grandfathered programmers should give up some of their time to make room for others to
appear at the TCA tour.

History, at 56 million subscribers and ramping up its
original programming, has applied for and won rotator slots in the past and for this July.
But officials from History and other networks still don't see why a premium service such
as HBO should continue to be guaranteed hours on end each tour.

"On what basis should HBO get all of that time?"
asked Gary Morgenstein, vice president of public affairs for History. "It's patently
unfair. I could see years ago, when HBO was the only one doing this kind of original
programming. But, hello guys! The television landscape is no longer that."

However, he and other programmers recognized that the NCTA
is limited it what changes it can make to the tour.

"The NCTA is in a tough position," Morgenstein
said. "It's caught in the middle. It knows the issues, and it's trying to address
them."

Broyles said the association is not only looking to present
the best of cable programming at the tour, but also to serve the needs of the TV critics.
And big stars mean good copy to the writers.

"First and foremost, they want to see presentations on
original programming with good talent," Broyles said. "They want access to
talent, not just executives."

For its part, HBO argued that it has the big-name stars and
high-profile original movies that the critics want to see, and that's one reason why it
deserves a big block of time. HBO brought Susan Sarandon to the TCA tour in January, vice
president of media relations Quentin Schaffer said.

"The TCA is really catering to what the critics
want," he said. "They want the visible names and the big talent. The room will
fill for that."

Schaffer added that if smaller networks are not able to
deliver marquee actors and actresses during any one day at the TCA tour, "it weakens
the day for the rest of the cable networks."

Smaller, new independent networks have their own gripes.
They complain that their rivals -- emerging networks that are owned by the programming
giants -- are able to get time before the TV critics by presenting during their parent
companies' lengthy blocks.

For example, in January, new educational kids' channel
Noggin did a presentation during the TCA slot assigned to one of its owners, MTV Networks.

Working with the TCA over the past two years, the NCTA has
already made some adjustments during the tour so that more cable networks can participate
at some level. The changes included the creation of a new-network block, open only to
programmers that have never presented at the TCA tour, which was introduced last July.

In addition, a variety of networks are now allowed to
sponsor breakfasts, lunches and parties at night so they can informally mingle with the TV
critics. Previously, only the monster programmers -- HBO, Showtime and Turner -- hosted
those events. The big Saturday-night party this July, for example, will be hosted by
Comedy Central.

But some cable networks would still like to see more
radical changes at the TCA tour so that more programmers get chances to present, including
cutting the aforementioned time that HBO and Showtime have and parceling it out to other
networks..

Some of the TV critics have suggested that the broadcasters
should give up some of their time so that more cable programmers can present.

"The solution is limiting the [broadcast] networks to
a maximum of two days in the summer and squeezing in more cable networks," San
Francisco Chronicle
TV critic Tim Goodman said. "But there are a lot of arguments
to be made."

Heidi Diamond, Food's senior vice president of marketing
and business development, has her own suggestion: All of the grandfathered networks, and
not just HBO, should shave 15 minutes off their usual 45-minute presentations, opening
time for other cable programmers.

"It would be wonderful if there was an equitable means
for everybody to get a showcase," she said.

In addition to the rotator slots, this July, the NCTA had
planned to repeat the new-network block that it started last year.

Last July, Turner, HBO and Showtime did in fact each give
up 30 minutes of their TCA time. Out of that 90 minutes, the NCTA picked four new networks
to do concurrent sessions during that span: Knowledge TV, The Golf Channel, BBC America
and Game Show Network.

The participating programmers, the NCTA and the critics
alike generally deemed the first new-network block a success.

Brian Lambert of the St. PaulPioneer Press
in Minnesota said, "I found the BBC presentation succinct and very useful. I
generally like the idea of a quick sampler of 'other' channels."

Goodman noted that because of the special sessions, he was
familiar with BBC America and Golf, and he was able to clue his readers in about them when
AT&T Broadband & Internet Services launched them on digital recently in San
Francisco.

Although the NCTA had planned another new-network block
this July, assistant director of public affairs Sharon Radziewski said she contacted 24
"new" networks about the block, but she only got two proposals back for it, with
one arriving after the May 3 deadline.

The association lumped those proposals with the ones that
it got for the rotator slots, deciding that the overall demand for rotator slots far
outweighed the demand for the new-network block, she added.

So the 90 minutes that were going to be set aside for new
networks became two additional rotator slots, added to the usual four, for a total of six.

To pick the networks that actually got the rotator
openings, the NCTA did an informal e-mail survey of 25 critics, asking them which networks
they wanted to see on the July tour. "The vote tally weighed heavily on which
networks were selected for the tour," Radziewski said.

The NCTA has been working with the TCA to make changes in
the tour, especially after the NCTA commissioned a survey on the tour in late 1996,
according to Broyles.

"We had reached a crossroads with the TCA in terms of
the ever-growing demand for network slots," he said.

Cable consultant Marshall Cohen questioned more than 100 TV
critics, as well as 50 networks, for the survey -- both participants and nonparticipants
in the tour.

As a result of the survey, a number of changes have been
made. For example, cable networks that aren't presenting at the tour are now allowed to
host a shared party for the critics, and sponsorships of lunches and dinners have been
opened up to all networks.

"It allows more networks to participate," Broyles
said.

One year, when FX started airing reruns of NYPD Blue,
the network brought Dennis Franz to the shared TCA party. "It got them a tremendous
amount of publicity," Broyles said.

He added that the NCTA constantly points out to the TCA the
desire of more cable networks to take part in the tour, and progress has been made.

This past January, when cable traditionally has three days
during the tour, it got four because the broadcasters didn't use all of their time,
Broyles said. Cable will also have four days instead of the traditional three in January
2000, he added.

The NCTA tries to pack all that it can into its portion the
tour by scheduling sessions back-to-back from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. -- a grueling lineup for
the TV writers.

"I think we've stretched it as far as we can,"
Broyles said. "Some critics complain that they have no time to write."

 

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