Buddy, can you spare us a slot?

New TV channels are finding satellite and cable space hard to find. Meg Carter reports

Last week's news that the BBC plans to launch eight new channels by the summer of 1997 sent a frisson of anxiety through the collective ranks of would-be new TV stations in the UK, because until the digital revolution launches in late 1997 or 1998, there is a crucial shortage of "shelf space" in the pay-TV market, both on satellite and cable. Making room for new BBC channels is going to put the squeeze on the dozens of small niche channels stuck in the "distribution" queue.

To date, the Independent Television Commission has licensed 217 cable and satellite programme providers, giving the green light to a broad range of services, from local and regional cable TV to religious and ethnic services, from themed special-interest stations to major non-terrestrial players such as Discovery, UK Gold and Sky TV. But at least one-third of these have yet to be launched. And, according to industry estimates, many more are waiting.

"For the first time, supply of new channels is far outstripping demand - we are faced with more than 20 channels trying to launch on Telewest before Christmas and we have virtually no capacity," explains Ashley Faull, director of programmes at Telewest, the UK's largest cable operator. This is why the company is now surveying subscribers' views on a range of existing and proposed channels before deciding to carry a range of new channels including those being launched by Granada Sky Broadcasting.

And Telewest is not the only one. All major cable companies are reviewing their channel line-ups to see how they can offer subscribers better value and squeeze in new services that, they hope, will strengthen customer loyalty and win new audiences. At Bell Cablemedia, research has been under way for most of this year better to understand what customers want. Last month, a number of services were dropped - including Country Music Television, Landscape and NBC Superchannel.

"It is a distinct problem for new channels like us and one that is getting increasingly difficult," says Alan Rogers, director of programming at Christian cable TV station Ark 2, which hopes to launch in November. "Many channels are being delayed because of the time it is taking cable operators not only to meet them but to see those channels that, inevitably, will have to be dropped to make space."

The situation is little better on satellite, where the only real option is getting into bed with BSkyB, which dominates existing capacity on the Astra satellite service. However, apart from the cost and potential threat of lost independence, capacity is equally limited within Sky's multi- channel package even though the broadcaster continually manages to squeeze in additional services.

To be launched later this month is Fox Kids Network and, in November, the Weather Channel, Computer Channel, Sky Scottish and Warner Brothers TV. Even so, many channel hopefuls are in discussion with both Sky and cable operators eager to be part of the satellite broadcaster's portfolio of digital services launching in October 1997. But securing the carriage deals necessary to start operations is a tricky business.

"It's a very different approach to terrestrial TV deal-making," says Stephen Garrett, managing director of the teen channel Rapture, which hopes to launch on cable in November. Securing carriage is less a matter of capacity, more one of format, he believes. "They have a capacity issue - only they're not prepared to face it. The real issue is the nature of the service you offer them. Cable operators recognise the need for a wider range of channels that are unique to cable, to grow their audience."

No other channel targets the teenage audience, Garrett explains. While there are numerous kids' stations, watching peters out when viewers reach the age of 11 or 12. The next step is on to one of the music channels, either MTV or The Box, which is where, Garrett hopes, Rapture will come into its own.

Format alone, however, does not guarantee a deal with cable or with Sky. Witness the amount of duplication that already exists in the market: numerous lifestyle channels, three business services, two "gold" and two weather channels. Strange, surely, that unique niched services promising tightly targeted audiences (cable TV's "great promise") are losing out.

The reason is simple, according to the managing director of one channel preparing for imminent launch: "It doesn't take a nuclear physicist to see that big media brands - like Carlton, Associated and Mirror Group - are having an easier time of it. Most have big names, big press power and packaging strengths. Unaffiliated channels, despite sound backing and blue-chip pedigrees, are having a harder time."

When GSB confirmed plans to launch, many cable operators kept space open to accommodate the new channels. Added pressure for GSB arose when the BBC subsequently announced plans to develop eight channels in partnership with Flextech. Similar interests are behind the presence of two similar general entertainment channels - from Hollywood majors and key UK TV suppliers Paramount and Warner. Each has moved with apparent ease into the UK market thanks to carriage from BSkyB. And this despite past experience proving that general entertainment channels without a clear unique selling point perform weakest with a cable and satellite audience, as proved by the low interest in the Family Channel.

The "unaffiliated" are regarded as less strategically important, it seems. But affiliation can have its downsides, too. When one channel hopeful attracted interest from both BSkyB and Flextech, Sky committed only after securing the condition that Flextech - the UK programming cousin of cable operator Telewest, owned in turn by US media giant TCI - did not.

"Increasingly, we are asking ourselves: `just what does it take to get carriage these days'?" says Ashley Dartnell, managing director of Irish station Tara TV, which aims to launch by Christmas. "Quality programming. A large and deeply passionate potential subscriber base. Competitive pricing. Well-funded backers. Just what else do you need to do?" Tara is now petitioning cable operators with research showing that UK-Ireland is one of the top 15 busiest routes for international phone calls.

Another way is by having a channel format that can be exploited internationally. In this way, a channel which may only have a 3 per cent share in the UK cable market has a viable business with similar stakes in France, Germany and Holland. That's the strategy adopted by Video Jukebox Network, the company behind interactive music channel The Box. And it's a plan being developed by the gay TV station Rainbow, which is now negotiating format sales in a number of other countries, says station spokesman Mike Johnson.

Increased channel capacity, promised by the arrival of digital broadcasting, will inevitably release the logjam of cable and satellite services eager to make it on to TV, many believe. According to Garrett: "Once the real multi-channel revolution starts to happen, with digital multiplexes, there will be a bit of a free-for-all - and the first real opportunity to find out what viewers really want."

Maybe. Yet few expect to see only the channels the public really wants, because the stakes are high and rising in the poker game that UK cable and satellite TV has become. Having a channel idea with a defined audience and advertiser appeal is no longer enough to guarantee a winning hand.

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