Backtalk: Digital: Field of Dreams?


Programmers these days are auditioning for leading roles indigital cable's remake of Field of Dreams.

In the original Tinseltown classic, Kevin Costner, whoportrayed an Iowa farmer, heard voices that haunted him, saying, "If you build it, hewill come." So Costner erected a baseball diamond that fulfilled his own fantasies,but that required a major leap of faith from the film's audience.

Meanwhile, in the real world of cable, HBO is using thatnow-memorable, "If you build it, he will come" lingo in its current marketingcampaign to cable operators. HBO is getting ready for the "digital millennium"by offering six HBO multiplexed channels and four Cinemax multiplexed channels.

But the digital millennium is certainly taking its sweettime in arriving. After years of promises, to date, only approximately 220,000 homes --mostly Tele-Communications Inc.'s subscribers -- now get the new digital offerings of110 to 150 channels.

There is no analog capacity at TCI, and "digital istightening, too," maintains Tracy Wagner, the MSO's senior vice president ofprogramming distribution.

Still, HBO and a horde of other networks are in a heatedrace for whatever space -- real or not -- there is. Whether it's"digital-friendly" or "analog-only," the list of wanna-be networks islengthening by the minute.

Even trying to define a digital network today is a trickybusiness. In a recent public forum, I asked MediaOne's president, Jan Peters, anewcomer to cable, what her thoughts were on digital networks. She asked back, somewhatperplexed, "How do you define a digital network?"

I lamely said, "You know, the ones that go on thedigital tier."

Later, I thought about her question, because it was a goodone. Clearly, Ovation or Turner Classic Movies, for example, were never designed fordigital distribution. But both of them are there, at least in TCI's configuration.

Wagner aptly points out that TCM has turned out to be agreat example of a "driver for digital."

So what will other operators actually place on theirdigital tiers when they catch up with TCI -- which, by the way, is going to reconfigureits digital lineup in July.

One MSO programming executive believes that the servicesthat work best are reshuffled analog products, like the multiplexed premium services.

In fact, that's the model -- the multiplex -- thatDiscovery, a basic network, seems to be taking with its rash of new networks. Like ahormone-crazed rabbit, Discovery Networks keeps spewing new networks, including Home &How To Network, Discovery Health, Discovery Kids and Discovery Science.

"Those Discovery digital networks are really oldanalog products spread out over a number of channels, which allows Discovery viewers towatch what they want when they want to," says another MSO programming executive.

But most new networks, especially independents, simplycan't afford to be relegated to the back of cable's digital bus. The economicsjust don't work for digital networks unless they have several analog big brothernetworks that can afford to carry the weight of those losses during those nail-bitingstart-up years.

Even Discovery's selling proposition for all of itsnew networks, which are clearly designed for the digital world, is, "Designed foroperator flexibility on both analog and digital platforms."

Then, there's the other end of the continuum. Look atToon Disney, which just launched April 18 in about 1 million cable homes and 4 million DBShomes via DirecTv and EchoStar. That network was originally conceived to be a digitalnetwork, but it got analog distribution because operators liked the product enough to putit there.

Even though operators say there is no analog space andlimited digital space, programmers maintain that operators will always manage to findanalog space for the right channel, like Toon Disney -- or, in some cases, for the rightdeal.

For example, take Style, which E! Entertainment Televisionwill launch this September. Style is being pitched as an analog network, and E! presidentand CEO Lee Masters says the company will be quite "aggressive," includinglaunch fees in the neighborhood of what Animal Planet paid out -- about $5 per subscriber.

So no matter who lands those leading parts in the remake ofField of Dreams, I'm banking on another box-office hit for the lucky winners.