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Sunday, May 20, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pay-Per-View TV -- You, Too, Can Soon See It All... For A Price

Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK - The people who run the National Football League are thinking about doing it.

Organizers of the Olympic Games have decided to do it.

And the promoters of boxing and wrestling have been doing it for years.

``It'' is making sporting events available on pay-per-view television. The PPV system allows a viewer to pay a fee to watch a program of his choice on his TV.

While NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue tells Congress the Super Bowl is safe from pay-per-view for the time being, speculation grows that certain pro football games - those not involving local teams - could be on PPV as early as next season.

Tagliabue and the other pro sports commissioners also told the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications and finance subcommittee May 9 that cable TV could be an important source of revenue within the decade.

Other significant developments:

-- NBC Sports, in conjunction with Cablevision, has announced a PPV plan to distribute up to 600 hours of live Olympic programming from Barcelona in 1992.

-- New heavyweight boxing champion James ``Buster'' Douglas' first title defense will be seen on PPV. The reason is that pay-cable HBO, which televised Douglas' upset of Mike Tyson as part of an eight-fight contract with the dethroned champ, can't afford to pay for rights to a truly big-money bout.

Pay-TV is certain to become more prevalent as the technology improves, according to Charles Dolan, founder and chief executive officer of Cablevision Systems, one of the largest cable operators and programmers in the country.

Cablevision already is wiring systems in the Bronx and Brooklyn with addressable converters that can pick and choose only the cable stations the viewer wants.

``When you put the two (technology and programming) together,'' Dolan said recently, ``there will be a lot more that can be done with sports on television.'' Such as the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.

``The complaint about (past) Olympics coverage was that it was wonderful, but it was all on one channel. And expenses were paid by advertisers. People said they either didn't cover the events they wanted and/or there were too many commercials. All of that comes from the limitations inherent in commercial broadcasting.''

And that's where Cablevision, through its contract with NBC, will step in. ``Pay-per-view on cable will use three channels in an effort to give the viewer a feeling of presence in Barcelona,'' Dolan said. ``Our plan is that, when we start, we will stay with it to conclusion. There will be no commercials. And we will do all our events live.

``Here the economics of pay-per-view and the technology are making it possible for the American home to enjoy the Olympics in a new way. That's the future of pay-per-view and sports.''

A network official agreed that the '92 Games will be a proving ground for pay-per-view outside the big-event arena.

``We'll know a lot more about pay-per-view after the Barcelona Olympics,'' said Jay Rosenstein, CBS Sports vice president for programming.

But Rosenstein was skeptical about viewers' willingness to dish out $150 for two weeks of Olympic volleyball, gymnastics, field hockey and sailing. That kind of sticker shock may prevent NBC from recouping some of the $401 million it spent for TV rights to the Barcelona Games.

``Let's say the Olympics average a 20 rating (18 million households) in prime time,'' said Rosenstein. ``How many people are prepared to watch the Olympic Games in the afternoon in the middle of summer to see events they otherwise would not be able to see on network in prime time? If the finals of these events only do a 20 rating, what would be the attraction of the preliminary events that would cause people to spend $5, let alone $150?''

Marty Passeta of Touchtone, a pay-per-view operator, also sees the '92 Olympics as just the opening skirmish between broadcast television and PPV.

Passeta agrees with Dolan that new technology, such as addressable converters, must be widely available before large-scale PPV programming is attempted.

``The first step will be the total cabling of America,'' Passeta said. ``The next step will be small, 2-foot dishes in apartment windows for direct satellite broadcast, and that's coming.''

And it's coming a lot sooner than many thought. Cablevision and NBC, in conjunction with Hughes Communications and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., announced plans Feb. 21 for Sky Cable, which will use a dish the size of a napkin placed on a roof or windowsill. Sky Cable, which plans to market the dish/decoder for $300 (programming extra), plans to be operating in three years.

Passeta predicted that special events such as boxing and rock shows would continue to be PPV staples and that horse racing and perhaps the Stanley Cup finals aren't far down the line. ``Then the World Series or the Super Bowl?'' he asked. ``Anything's possible, depending on the imagination of a producer or the imagination of a distributor.

``We can do it, but who's to say they (the NFL team owners) would want it?''

Rosenstein didn't see a demand among NFL owners for PPV in the near future.

Rosenstein said it is faulty logic to think that just because a program gets a 20 rating - a good Nielsen figure for a prime-time sports event - that the event will translate into megabucks on PPV.

``Those 18 million homes are not going to plunk down the dollars,'' Rosenstein said.

``The NFL has said the Super Bowl will remain on free television through this century. It will be very difficult for events of that stature to be restricted to only those who can afford to pay high prices.''

Scott Kernit of Viewers' Choice, which telecasts such events as the Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight title fight in 1988 on pay-per-view, disagrees.

``Who said this is supposed to be free anyway?'' said Kernit. ``I'm not sure it's a birthright. The Super Bowl isn't news, in the purest sense of the word. It's entertainment.

``When you watch (an auto race) on CBS, you get yourself in trouble because they go away for commercials and during that time, the lead changes hands,'' Kernit said. ``You really never get that true sense of being there.''

That's what NBC and Cablevision are selling for the '92 Olympics. For $150, they promise to take you to Barcelona, feed you the all the sights and sounds you can absorb and even provide you special commentary where the commercials used to go.

At those prices, though, you'd think they'd throw in a free tapas bar.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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