BY W. F. GLOEDE Though this magazine went to press before yesterday’s Super Bowl, I feel confident in reporting today that a) the Pirates won and b) the game got the highest rating in all of television for the year 2003. I’ll even go so far as to postulate that the commercials during the game, which went for $2 million-plus a pop, were worth every nickel. Though the price was considerably lower, the same was true when the 1972 Miami Dolphins completed the only perfect season in the history of pro football. The point here is not to prove the value of the Super Bowl, but to point out that agents of change — so the rage in recent years among pundits and corporate bootlicks — are just three words that roughly translate into “someone who’s trying to make a fast buck.” Just a few years ago, the Super Bowl was doomed to ever-diminishing ratings as people turned off their TV sets and surfed the Web in search of more ways to enhance their increasingly active lifestyles. Or at least that’s what we were told. We didn’t notice that the people who were telling us this were in the Internet business or, worse, in the increasingly active lifestyle game. As it turned out, increasingly active fortunes were lost while people grew increasingly less active. Last week came a couple more pieces of news that fatten this argument. Fox aired the first new episode of last year’s surprise hit American Idol and netted an audience of 27 million households. This update of Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour is of a genre that was supposed to be dead a generation ago. The NFL playoff games on Fox and CBS posted strong ratings increases over the previous several years. Taken together with the ratings successes chalked up during the current TV season by The Sopranos, Taken, Monk, The Osbournes, Strong Medicine, Trading Spaces and The Shield, these developments show that TV in general can still grow and that cable in particular is not a mature business at all. In fact, the number of hours people spend watching TV is growing, according to the CableTelevision Advertising Bureau. Where I come from, more eyeballs mean more money. Hence the real subject of this column, which is the abrupt turnaround performed by pundits last week when persons unknown leaked to The Wall Street Journal that EchoStar’s Charlie Ergen was talking to News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and Liberty Media’s John Malone about selling them his company. Suddenly, satellite, which only weeks before was killing cable with its lower-priced yet higher quality offerings, was down and out. If you took the time to browse the punditry on the Web posted in the wake of the Journal story, you learned that either the leak was a Machiavellian ploy by Murdoch to get the General Motors board to move on negotiations over its DirecTV unit, or that Charlie Ergen was a step away from total desperation. There were no facts presented in either case. Meantime, the analysts surveyed by the Journal Online have both stocks rated “buy.” The same goes for the stocks of Cox, Comcast, Cablevision, Insight, Mediacom and even Charter, although the last in that group just barely. The pundits said the salient issue confronting the satellites is their failure to crack the market for sales of high-speed data service. These are the same folks who last fall were predicting doomsday for cable operators as the satellites continued to grow their subscriber bases while cable stood still. What, pray tell, has changed since then? HSD services and the strong margins they provide are certainly a bright spot for cable operators. But the basic business is still television. I submit that digital cable and satellite can peacefully (well, maybe not so peacefully) coexist, each serving consumers with different needs or priorities. Not everyone needs, wants or cares about Internet access. Likewise for crisp, bright pictures and digital sound. One thing everyone does want is choice. The satellites may have plucked all the available low-hanging fruit from cable’s subscriber base, but there’s still growth left in their business, particularly among consumers who are motivated by price. Cable, powered by VOD and hi-def, will lose fewer customers to satellite in the near term but probably have more of a negative impact on Blockbuster. Cable will be able to sustain a higher price point for its premium services because they offer value to the consumer in the form of choice. It would be nice to see any of these companies, cable or satellite, report a net profit. Maybe someday. But they’re still good businesses, at least in Wall Street’s eyes, relative to their current stock prices. It’s 2003, the big game is still No. 1. It would not exist were it not for TV. Therefore, TV must still be No. 1.

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