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CBS could become subscription network

It’s not unusual these days for network executives to lament about how tough it is to compete with popular pay television services on cable and satellite. But Viacom CEO Mel Karmazin has always been an enthusiastic cheerleader for good, old-fashioned, advertising-sponsored television.

So it was news last week when Karmazin told a media conference in New York City that CBS could become a pay network if personal video recorder (PVR) devices like TiVo catch on and significant numbers of viewers start zapping commercials.

“We give you all this great content for free, and all we ask is for you to watch our commercials. If the time comes when you don’t watch our commercials, then we will have to make our money some other way,” Karmazin told a group of investors the Credit Suisse First Boston conference.

Karmazin also said he’s exploring the possibility of launching a science fiction cable channel, looking for bargain acquisitions for Viacom, and continuing to lobby the federal government to loosen station ownership regulations. Karmazin is asking regulators to allow “triopolies,” the ability to own three TV stations in a single market. If that were allowed, he said, Viacom would be more likely to swap stations with ABC or NBC than buy stations or station groups.

Karmazin, whose contract expires at the end of 2003, is currently negotiating his future at Viacom. He said there's “so much noise” about his future tenure that he'd like to settle the matter “sooner rather than later.” Karmazin said, however, that he prefers not to be locked into a long-term contract, and insisted on an agreement with Viacom and its chairman-CEO Sumner Redstone doesn't hinge on compensation or title, but on “whether in 2004 and beyond I can add more value here and have fun.”

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