IRTS Panel Shows Cable Constraints

Top cable executives said that cable networks are doing a satisfactory job targeting niche audiences but are sometimes being constrained by other forces in the industry.

The YES Network's Leo Hindery said that cable programmers are doing an extraordinary job of recognizing their audiences and catering to them. But he also said the cable industry itself, particularly distribution, thwarts programmers' efforts to reach those audiences. Hindery said the Hispanic and African-American communities were well served by cable but that other ethnic groups aren't.

"I'm troubled by it. I thought we'd see a world of much more ethnic programming," Hindery said Thursday afternoon. He and other cable-network CEOs and presidents spoke in New York at a luncheon panel in New York sponsored by the International Radio and Television Society.

BET's Debra Lee said that while cable has done well by ethnic audiences without the need for government regulation, more work still needs to be done to align cable to the reality of American diversity. "Cable programmers and cable operators have to really focus on the changes in the demographics of our population," she said.



Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon, TVLand and The New TNN, said he felt that cable had done a good job meeting the needs of its viewers. He said that cable networks were better at doing it "and not coming up with excuses as to why they can't." He cited the efforts of one of his networks, Nickelodeon. "If the network is for all kids, you want to have all kids" represented. Another show, Dora The Explorer, is on TV and on stage and he said it's huge and not limited. "The audience is everybody," he said.

CourtTV's Henry Schlieff said he saw a future where there's a voice and a show in the future for virtually any minority. He said the bigger issue was how to increase the number of minorities, including those in style of life, represented at the all levels of the networks. Schlieff said what's needed is a voice for people who do not have the same background or frame of reference. "That's where the fresh ideas are going to come from," he said.

CNBC CEO Pamela Thomas-Graham noted that cable news has a mixed track record in diversity, noting that "diversity goes on both on screen and what happens behind the camera." She said that cable TV had done pretty well, for instance, with having women in the top levels of management.

Discovery Communications executives talk about diversity in terms of marketing and programming every day, said Billy Campbell, president/CEO of Discovery Communications. "It's way different than the broadcast side," said Campbell, who came to Discovery nine months ago after 14 years in broadcast TV. "I think cable is doing a fantastic job in going after these narrower targets. Does that mean we couldn't do better? No," Campbell said. "We're constantly looking at other opportunities."

Scannell said that in 1981, general-interest cable networks were considered the only way to succeed in the industry. "Nowadays, if you'r enot specialized, you're not relevant," he noted. He cited The New TNN, which announced last week that it would rename itself Spike TV and focus exclusively on programming for 18- to 34-year-old men. Scannell said the idea of mass-appeal cable networks don't resonate that well and networks have to create positions in the marketplace.

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