Cable television is at a crossroads.
After a decade of piping networks like CNN, MTV and ESPN into
the homes of paying customers, monopoly cable franchises are seeing
the storm clouds of competition gathering on their horizon for the
The emerging competition, made possible by new technologies and
probable changes in federal regulations, promises to make the 1990s
the most turbulent era ever in the cable television industry.
Everyone from direct satellite broadcasters to local telephone
companies wants to reach into your living room with video
programming. In the process, they'll be reaching into your wallet,
trying to grab a share of the fast-growing $18 billion market for
pay television services.
For couch potatoes, the changes will likely bring a bewildering
array of viewing options during the 1990s.
As the industry evolves, selecting a television program to
watch will become more like buying a subscription to a magazine.
Viewers will pay for what they want to watch. From new-release
movies to key sporting events, more viewing options will be
selected _ and billed _ on an a la carte basis, industry experts
Such a varied video menu may be several years away. But by the
middle of next year, Tarrant County, Texas, at least will see the
first competitor emerge that will try to differentiate itself from
established franchise operators such as Sammons Cable Services and
American Wireless Systems of California has said it plans to
spend $15 million to launch a "wireless" cable system in Fort Worth
The company plans to beam a package of up to 25 cable networks
from a microwave tower in downtown Fort Worth. The signal is
expected to reach a 30-mile radius reaching west to Weatherford,
south to Cleburne and north almost as far as Denton.
The microwave signal can be received through a 3-foot-wide dish
antenna installed on subscribers' rooftops.
The American Wireless package of networks is smaller than that
offered by most established cable companies. Arlington TeleCable,
for example, offers 55 channels with plans to expand to 60.
However, the price for American Wireless' service is expected
to be 10 percent to 20 percent less than that of franchised cable
services, said Bryan O'Hara, the former general manager of Sammons
Cable in Fort Worth. He is now heading up American Wireless' local
Although the company has not completed contract negotiations
with programmers, O'Hara said he expects that the system will carry
virtually every major cable network, including HBO, CNN and ESPN.
The only network absent from American Wireless is TNT, a Turner
Broadcasting Corp. network that is shown exclusively on cable
franchises, O'Hara said.
"We don't have 50 channels, and we don't claim to have 50
O'Hara said. "But we will have the channels that you want to
watch at a lower price."
Eighty wireless systems with a total of 400,000 subscribers
operate nationwide, according to the Wireless Cable Association
International in Washington. One particularly successful system,
OmniVision, operates in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Most such systems do not attempt to establish themselves as the
dominant cable provider in a region. Rather, they try to sell
themselves in selected niche markets, said Robert Schmidt,
president of the Wireless Cable Association.
Wireless systems draw a portion of their subscriber base from
areas that have not been wired for cable, such as remote
neighborhoods and new subdivisions deemed uneconomical for cable
wiring, Schmidt said.
Other wireless firms try to capitalize on the reputation for
monopolistic attitudes and poor service associated with some cable
operators, Schmidt said.
Cable companies usually operate under municipal franchises
granting them the exclusive right to wire a community for cable