MEXICO CITY — Thousands of Mexicans who bought expensive satellite dishes to pick up American TV may have to fork over more dollars to avoid a return to the stale Mexican fare of old movies, soap operas and U.S. reruns.
A decision by satellite operators in the United States to scramble their signals will force Mexican viewers to buy costly descramblers and pay high monthly fees if they want their U.S. TV.
Faced with such Mexican programming as dubbed reruns of "Love Boat" and "The Munsters," or Cablevision--the three U.S. networks, PBS and a sports channel--many affluent Mexicans have opted for HBO, MTV and more than 30 other U.S. cable stations.
Local television includes international films and cultural programs, but prime-time viewing centers on soap operas produced by the one network, Televisa, and nightly U.S. series.
"You have to have an antenna system in Mexico because there are only bad channels here," said Ricardo Guaida Adam, the owner of an apparel factory.
Thousands of well-to-do Mexican families have purchased satellite antennas for as much as $8,000 in recent years to receive the higher-quality U.S. programming. The northern city of Monterrey is thick with the signal catchers, which are also prominently displayed in Mexico City's wealthier neighborhoods.
"Around my house it looks like a field of parabolic antennas. They have turned into a sign of prestige," said Juana Solana, a college professor who lives in the posh capital city suburb of Bosques de Las Lomas.
But U.S. cable systems have moved to prevent the "theft" of their services by scrambling the signals. The seven most popular channels, including HBO and Cinemax, have been scrambled this year, and about 40 others are scheduled to follow suit during the next three years.
Congress is considering regulations for the industry, including a proposal to prevent cable operators from charging monthly fees to hook up service for customers outside the country.
Such a move would render Mexican satellite antennas useless. Even so, many dish owners are not waiting to find out what Congress will do.
Guaida pays $19.95 each month to receive HBO and Cinemax.
"Everyone who has a parabolic antenna is going to be forced to buy a descrambler, because if they don't, they won't receive any good channels," he said.
American satellite broadcasters have announced a plan to offer their signals in a budget package soon to go into effect. The most popular stations, such as the general movie, news and music channels, will cost $6.50 each, and the rest will be included in a basic package for $25 a month.
The price of descrambling computers is also high--as much as double the cost in the United States, because of import tariffs.
Telerey sells its American-made parabolic antenna system at double the cost of the same system in the United States--about $4,000--because of import tariffs. Descramblers are also selling for twice the price in Mexico.
No matter the cost, Mexicans are expected to fork over their dollars, which have become increasingly dear as the value of the peso plummets.