New TV Programmers: Cable Operators That Start Reading Network Ratings

Since when do cable operators really care about cable network ratings? Apparently, in the near future, they will.

Jeff Shell, president of programming for Comcast Corp., the largest cable operator in the U.S., says just as with mini-broadcast networks, UPN or The WB, expect many mid-level cable networks to find merger partners, or be shown their walking papers.

He said that without highly rated marquee shows, some networks "are in the most trouble."

Can this be true? Will cable operators decide whether a network get carriage based on ratings--not by how large a monthly subscriber fee it gets? Does that really mean Comcast will give those high-end $2 per sub per month or $3 per sub per month the heave-ho?

Remember, Shell said mid-level--which of course means those poorer paying subscriber fee networks. Few cable operators will want to terminate those networks still paying big fees--no matter how low those ratings are. Shell figures limited bandwidth issues will get the best of cable operators, and they'll have to call it on a few terminal networks that are on the operating table.



Time of death: when the next rating book comes out.

Sure, cable operators sell some local cable advertising time. And yes, it matters that ESPN, TNT, or MTV does well with viewers. But the issue isn't with those networks; it's with the ones operators don't sell too well--or at all--but still get a handsome subscriber fee from.

If ratings are indeed an issue for cable operators right now, why not just lop off the bottom 50 or 100, or those channels that are getting a 0.00000001 rating? You know, those networks that have as many viewers as customers a small, local Starbucks has at 9 a.m.

Yes, that would be cruel. Every quirky, religious broadcaster, regional sports or entertainment cable network, or micro-niche network--the Accountant Nosehair Channel, The Fur Network--would be shown the door. What would happen to new and unusual networks, say the Al Gore-led news channel Current? Swept away by a stronger flow.

Cable operators better just forget this. If they really want to act like TV programmers and not a cash flow machine built on sub fees, they'll have to start respecting the rules of the programming-ratings road. Are cable systems a quasi-utility for the public good? Or are they a real programming decision maker, who will make tough programming decisions when viewers aren't watching?

The Sewing Channel? Too bad. Not enough pins and needles. But many networks will be on pins and needles.

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