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The Scoop on the Dish

More and more TV viewers are discovering the joys of Direct Broadcast Satellite services, which offer as many as 200 channels and scores of programming packages via pint-sized saucers.

September 07, 1996|DAN LOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We may not need hundreds of television channels, but apparently lots of us want them.

Right now, the hot thing in the delivery of television programming is Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) services. DBS service providers offer viewers as many as 200 channels via pint-sized satellite dishes.

The picture is digital quality and the sound is CD quality, which attracts the TV purists. The small dish systems also strike a chord in frugal viewers who live where cable companies charge high rates for mediocre service.

"The primary reason we wanted a satellite dish at our beach home was because we come here to relax and enjoy the home and the entertainment center is a tremendous source of pleasure," says Jim Simpson of Dana Point. "One of the great things I love about the satellite dish is the music channels. They're varied and uninterrupted. I find them soothing. Even my dog finds the music channels very soothing.

"Also there's a tremedous range of movie channels. To really understand an entertainment center, you have to experience it."

With scores of channels available, service providers offer a seemingly infinite number of packages. The big dog of the DBS systems is DirecTV, a subsidiary of GM Hughes Electronics Corp.

Its programming includes the most popular cable channels such as CNN, ESPN, C-SPAN, the Weather Channel, TBS, TNN, A&E, the Disney Channel, TNT, the Learning Channel, CNBC, E! and the Discovery Channel. There are also first-run pay-per-view movies, extensive sports offerings (including live pay-per-view events) and specialty programs. Twenty-nine channels of stereo music without commercials are also available.

"The people who buy the big dishes are looking for sports, the wild feeds . . . or international programming," says Don Ducharme, general manager of Multi-Television Services in Anaheim who installed the Simpsons' system.

There's even something for computer fans. Hughes is introducing Internet access via DirecTV. Transmission from the satellite will take place at 400 kilobits per second (Kbps), more than 10 times faster than the 28.8 kilobits per second that is the current standard for modems in home computers.

How do the new satellite setups differ from those 10-foot-wide dishes that seem to consume entire backyards? In the past, large dishes were necessary to pick up weak signals emanating from older, less powerful satellites. But today small dishes, 18 to 39 inches in diameter, deliver big time.

DirecTV was the first true DBS system to go into nationwide operation, closely followed by the United States Broadcasting Co. (USSB). These systems are built around three high-powered Hughes satellites.

With the DirecTV/USSB approach, users buy a DBS system--a small satellite dish, a receiver and a remote control--for $400 to $1,500, then pay for programming (about $15 to $45 a month).

Primestar, a DBS-like system, leases the dish, the receiver and the remote to the consumer as part of the programming package (about $45 a month). Although it offers fewer channels, about 43% of direct-to-home customers prefer the cost of leasing over buying and paying for programming.

The newest DBS system is the EchoStar DISH Network ("DISH" stands for Digital Sky Highway). The system uses an 18-inch dish, but its receiver isn't compatible with the DirecTVreceiver. The company expects to launch another satellite later, which will boost the DISH Network's capacity to 200 channels.

In some areas, users pay for basic cable service to receive local channels or purchase an antenna that will pull in the local stations. "That's one of the big snags, there's no local broadcasting," says John Roberts, manager of Precision Audio in Brea. "The other complaint is, they have to buy a slave receiver for each additional television."

A splitter can send the programming to other TVs or VCRs in your home, but all will be tuned to the same channel. To separate channels, you'll need a deluxe system, which has two coaxial connections and costs about $200 more than a basic system, and a second receiver (about $500).

DirecTV and USSB insist on a telephone connection for each receiver in the household, so that the customer can access pay-per-view channels and the systems' other interactive features.

There are a number of companies authorized to manufacture and distribute DSS units, which means price and feature competition are becoming fierce. RCA (owned by Thomson Consumer Electronics) and Sony were the first manufacturers of the DSS systems. Toshiba, Matsushita (Panasonic), Uniden, Sanyo, Samsung and Daewoo will also be in the market by the end of this year.

The DSS equipment is available from such dealers as Sears Brand Central, Circuit City, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam's Clubs, not to mention scores of small electronics specialty firms.

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