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More than I can watch

When I moved to New York from Chicago a year and a half ago, I went from 1,200 square feet, storage space and a basement to 700 square feet and that was that. I started to live the less-is-more life. I have learned that it is possible to live with eight rather than 16 T-shirts and that coffee mugs are not that sentimental.

This year I moved from 700 square feet to about 550 and have learned to get by with just four T-shirts and about 40 fewer CDs than I had in the last place, where I had about 100 fewer than I did back when I had those well-known extravagant Midwestern values. I love New York.

But what I do have is channels. Lots and lots of channels. Far more than I can deal with. And as I've just discovered, I'm not alone.

The fact is, as Nielsen reports in Television Audience 2000, the average television household receives 74 channels. Just five years earlier, the average household could get 41. That's the plus side.

On the other hand, there's evidence to suggest that far more than enough is enough.

Of those households that receive 71 or more channels, Nielsen says, those viewers only look at 16.7 of them. In homes where cable provides "only" 61-70 channels, the average number of channels tuned in is 15.4. If your system offers just 51-60 channels, the average you look at is 15.1. Bigger means nothing, just about.

To put this in shoebox-sized Manhattan apartment terms, my cable system keeps adding lots of T-shirts I will never wear, and, as the trends suggest and this magazine reports, more are coming. What will I do with all of them?

I don't mind that I get Animal Planet, and I've watched it. But don't ask me a lot about it. Ditto with Fox Family. I don't think I get Golf, but, if I did, I wouldn't watch it. I look at Nick at Nite now and then, and every time I do I have a nostalgic moment about the old days when I used to watch Nick at Nite a lot. I don't now.

Nielsen reports that in homes that can receive 121 or more channels, just 17.7 are watched. A real corker in this stat is that the average number of channels a 121+ system provides is actually 203. So there's a whole lot of that big pipe that is being wasted.

Hey, of course we're not all watching the same channels. The glory of cable is that, when we all gather at the water cooler every morning, we have nothing to talk about anymore.

When Saturday Night Live
parodied Charles Grodin's CNBC talk show a couple years ago, I wondered if Lorne Michaels knew why it didn't work: Grodin had something like a 0.1 rating. Satire and parody don't work if the audience has never seen the original.

That's why I suspect a lot of people in the bottom-feeder portion of the programming business are excited about electronic program guides. They might get discovered. If a network you've never heard of can snare you, that EPG will have done its job. But guess what? That won't happen. Niche networks are supposed to be unpopular.

And clearly, after a certain point, there aren't many more television channels that can be absorbed. That's all right. A tiny magazine store in Manhattan—about the size of my apartment, incidentally—may have thousands of magazines. The fact that few customers buy Harper's is not a reason to quit carrying it. Those few buyers are enough for Harper's and presumably for the clerk.

But it should tell Harper's not to spin off a new title. It would to me anyway.

But if you're a cable network that, like almost all cable networks, is owned by Fox, AOL Time Warner, Viacom or Disney, what's the point of those digitally-tiered channels, even if they allow a programmer to repurpose old material?

If cable networks are already slicing ever-thinner audiences, why feed your very own cannibal?

If you're an advertiser, it must sound exciting to make your pitch to such a finely targeted audience.

But if that's the goal, it might be more efficient to do what a co-worker suggested when I worked at the largely unread Cincinnati Post. To save paper costs, he proposed we visit our readers at home and just tell
them the news.