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By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
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By Stephen Lemons
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And if you're in the Valley, you're watching a TV set somewhere in Mesa.
"Most people wouldn't think Mesa when they think of independent films, but you'd be surprised," says John Mori, director of marketing at CableAmerica Corporation, the only cable provider in Arizona which offers the Independent Film Channel. CableAmerica serves 13,000 Mesa customers in direct competition with cable giant Cox Communications.
Mori says CableAmerica saw a 13 percent increase last year in subscriptions to its "value pack"--channels not offered on basic service--when it added IFC and Showtime's new movie service, Flix. That translates into an additional 1,200 customers who pay an extra $5 a month for the seven-channel value pack. Mori says customers have called or written notes, gushing about IFC.
The Independent Film Channel--a sister network to cable's cultural powerhouse, Bravo--was launched a year ago this week. From L.A. to New York, viewers are treated to a 24-hour dose of a lineup chosen, in part, by an advisory board that reads like a who's who of great contemporary filmmaking: Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Martha Coolidge, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, to name a few.
But channel space on cable systems is at a premium, and IFC has been able to penetrate only a few markets. The network is carried mostly in urban areas where non-Hollywood films traditionally prosper.
"Intuitively, you would say L.A., New York, San Francisco," says Ed Carroll, IFC's vice president of marketing. But IFC has also found channel space on cable systems in Minneapolis, Portland, Maine, and, of course, Mesa.
Cable customers elsewhere in the Valley shouldn't expect to have access to IFC anytime soon. Officials from Cox Communications, which has 420,000 customers, say they have no plan to add IFC to its 67-channel lineup. All 58 channels of Scottsdale's TCI Cable system are full. The same apparently is true for Insight cable, which serves Gilbert and parts of north Phoenix with 38 channels.
Advertisements for the Independent Film Channel run continually on Bravo; viewers are urged to call their cable companies to demand IFC.
"We do track it, because it's important to us," says Ivan Johnson, vice president of Cox Communications, the Valley's largest cable provider. But Johnson estimates that of the 200,000 calls the company receives monthly, only about 200 are requests for new channels.
Johnson says the Independent Film Channel is one of many networks competing for diminishing space on the nation's cable systems. Cox, which acquired Dimension Cable in a merger with Times Mirror last winter, is rebuilding much of its sprawling Phoenix empire in a five-year project to bring each customer the 67-channel lineup already available in Tempe, Paradise Valley and parts of east Phoenix. There's room in the menu for new services, but Johnson says Cox is cautious about adding networks--in a given year, perhaps only one new channel is added.
(Because Cox and CableAmerica are wired in many of the same Mesa neighborhoods, Cox's Mesa customers may have the luxury of gaining access to IFC by jumping to CableAmerica.)
TCI Cable of Scottsdale, on the other hand, is "channel-locked," according to Ben Baltes, the company's marketing manager. TCI serves 60,000 customers in Scottsdale and Carefree, and currently offers 58 channels in its "basic plus" package. Last December, TCI filled in the last of its empty slots on the dial and simply can't add new networks. One of the last channels to make it: TV Food Network.
"We got a lot of flak for that decision," Baltes says. "But now TV Food is extremely popular."
TCI takes many requests for networks which didn't make the cut, especially ESPN2, the Sci-Fi Channel and the History Channel.
Despite the squeeze on cable carriers, it's still a good idea to call and demand new services, says the Independent Film Channel's publicist, Kim Becker. "It's sort of a democracy," she insists.
However, the channels you surf may have less to do with democracy than with the incestuous nature of the telecommunications industry. The proliferation of niche networks has put considerable pressure on carriers to fill out their basic cable packages with the spin-offs of their more established siblings.
On September 29, Cox will make room for two new channels to coincide with system improvements made in South Phoenix and other areas: MTV Latino and GEMS ("You've seen Lifetime? GEMS is like that, but in Spanish," Johnson says). Cox's "ownership interest" in GEMS, as Johnson calls it, is not unusual, given that Cox is the third-largest cable company in the nation. Cox also has ownership interest (along with TCI) in other networks looking for exposure, including two new entries in the sports microniche market: Outdoor Life and Speed.
Johnson says he hasn't felt pressure from corporate headquarters to make room for fledgling Cox-owned networks, but Outdoor Life made its Cox-Phoenix debut on August 31.
Ben Baltes at TCI is less guarded about the influence of higher-ups at Telecommunications Inc., TCI's parent company and, with 14 million hookups, the country's largest cable empire. TCI in Scottsdale has capacity for only 58 channels, which leaves little room to maneuver. Baltes insists that the influence of Telecommunications Inc.-owned channels is not an issue, but then he remembers the TV Network, a TCI-owned project that showcases several different networks on the same channel by alternating between them in four- to six-hour blocs. "We were told by corporate to make room for it," admits Baltes.