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HOME ENTERTAINMENT : New Satellite TV System Set to Challenge Cable

October 07, 1994|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Satellite TV systems have been around for years, but most people have never been interested because the dish is expensive and huge. A new system getting its local launch this week may cause them to think again, and could pose a serious challenge to cable TV.

The Digital Satellite System (DSS), manufactured by RCA/Thomson Consumer Electronics, consists of a satellite dish that is only 18 inches in diameter and attaches to the side of the house; a digital, VCR-sized receiver and an interactive remote control.

It's still not cheap, selling for $700. An installation kit costs $70 and professional installation can cost about $200.

The 175-channel system offers programming from two networks, USSB and DIRECTV, that is comparable to what's on cable, including HBO, Showtime, ESPN, MTV, VH-1, the Comedy Channel, Lifetime and pay-per-view films and other events.

The monthly fees vary, and each network offers a different assortment of programming. The full package is $34 a month from USSB and $30 a month from DIRECTV--and each offers cheaper deals by subscribing to fewer channels.

Possibly Digital Satellite System's biggest selling point, though--and where it leaves cable in the dust--is audio-visual excellence. The DSS picture is laser-disc-quality, far sharper and brighter than what's on regular TV or cable.

"You get a cleaner picture because it's digital--versus analog in cable and in the regular satellite system," said USSB President Stanley E. Hubbard. "You could get much better quality from the standard analog system but you'd need a lot of special equipment. With digital, that quality is a given part of the system."

DSS equipment is being sold at nearly 250 stores in the Los Angeles area alone--including Sears, the Good Guys and Circuit City. Hubbard said DSS has debuted in 23 states since June--with 100,000 units sold--and will be available nationwide by the end of the month.

A major difference in cable and DSS is that you can't get local stations through DSS. That means no ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox. That's not a problem if you can get their signals over the air, by a conventional antenna. But for those who need cable to get decent reception, the cost of paying for that and DSS may be too much.

Still, cable systems around the country are likely to feel the effects of DSS during the next year. "About half of our customers come from cabled areas," Hubbard said. "Most of them are not continuing to subscribe to cable."

Here are some points that Hubbard made about DSS:

* DSS is mainly for single-family homes, not apartments or condos, but next year there will probably be a way to market DSS to these complexes.

* RCA is the only company manufacturing DSS units now--at a rate of 100,000 per month. Sony will enter the market after 1 million units have been sold, which should be next spring, Hubbard predicted.

* DIRECTV is hoping to offer a package of National Football League games next season on its pay-per-view channels.

* Surround sound is being explored.

* There will be no hard-core adult channel. The Playboy Channel, on DIRECTV, is as risque as it gets on DSS.

* There's a soundtrack channel that allows consumers to get Spanish-language soundtracks on programs for which one is available.

* A major storm between the satellite dish and the satellite itself can cause a loss of signal, but he said that happens less than 2% of the time.

More Tech News

Launched two years ago by Philips, the Digital Compact Cassette has been a horrible flop. The primary feature of the format is that the machines play both digital and conventional cassettes. According to industry sources, Philips is about to relaunch DCC with a new ad campaign, new products and, most important, cheaper prices. . . . To take advantage of the home theater boom, CurtCo Publishing has launched an informative new monthly magazine, Home Theater Technology. If you're looking to get into home theater--or to improve your home theater components--it's the best guide on the market.

What's New On Video

"Jurassic Park" (MCA/Universal, $25). Main question: Are the dinosaur sequences just as breathtaking on a TV screen? Not really, but they're still pretty scary--particularly that chase through the lab near the end. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Sam Neill and Laura Dern, the movie is about dinosaurs running amok in a theme park.

"Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" (Touchstone, $20). Inventive, often captivating musical comedy done in stop-motion animation, with the characters resembling herky-jerky puppets. The hero is skeletal Jack Skellington from Halloweentown, who's bored with Halloween. He stumbles onto the Christmas spirit and decides to give the holiday a ghoulish make-over. Caution: may be too scary for kids under 6 or 7.

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