What's cheaper: spending millions of dollars on newbandwidth, or taking the slings and arrows of a few disgruntled subscribers angry over theremoval of their favorite cable network?
Over the past six months, cable operators have becomeincreasingly aware of their need to preserve precious bandwidth amid all of theuncertainties about HDTV and the spectrum giveaway to broadcasters. What if stations winmust-carry rights on those frequencies, as well?
Against that backdrop is the fracas going on inside CourtTV over who's actually programming the beleaguered network and over its three feudingowners: NBC, Time Warner and Liberty Media. Launched in 1991 to critical raves and decentacceptance by cable operators, the network's ratings remain stranded in the 0.2 rangein primetime.
Founder Steve Brill never could overcome the internecinerivalries and expand upon his vision for the network, and he was forced out a year ago.
Brill's worst fears are coming true. A journalisticpurist, he refused to release or discuss ratings -- for good reason, it turns out. Evenwhen everyone was watching Court TV in the days of the O.J. Simpson trial, Brill wanted topick trials for their news value, and not for their ratings impact. Since most trials lackthe drama of the Simpson or the nanny cases, he knew that ratings success could cut bothways.
Now, bandwidth-envious operators are wondering whether somebasic networks are pulling their weight on analog tiers and belong instead on digitaltiers.
"The opportunity costs for tying up 6 megahertz on anunderperforming network are much greater than they were two or three years ago," saidone MSO executive who was speaking generally, and not necessarily about Court TV.
The problem, operators concede, is that they lack the toolsto effectively measure the value of a particular network to subscribers.
What about ratings? They're a factor -- operatorscan't help but have noticed what South Park did for Comedy Central -- but arather narrow one: They don't speak to brand loyalty, or to whether a highly rated,but pricey, network that is dependent on off-network reruns for their viewership is worththe price.
That's why exclusivity is so important to operatorsthese days. For example, Eye on People won some raves from operators for its willingnessto grant terrestrial exclusivity, primarily against telco competition.
"That's one of the key arrows in ourarsenal," one operator said of exclusivity.
No one was saying last week that they had Court TV on anyhit list -- far from it.
But the question of the day is: How long will cableoperators eye analog networks that lack strong followings without trying to take backtheir valuable real estate?