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A Tug of Wire Between Cable, Satellite

Both services offer a mind-boggling choice of channels, but at what price?

November 22, 2001|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who owns a television set has no doubt seen the DirecTV ads featuring a clean-cut installer extolling the benefits of satellite: Seven HBO channels, 100% digital quality and as many as 13 NFL games every Sunday.

The commercials end with "Feel the Joy," but "Feel the Rip" is more like it.

The ads are part of an aggressive campaign to lure consumers into signing up for DirecTV satellite service and dumping their traditional cable company. For several months, I subscribed to DirecTV and Adelphia digital service in an attempt to learn more about the debate burning inside many homes: cable or satellite?

I can report that "Joy" is not the feeling most people get from paying nearly $100 a month to watch television--a pastime that not too long ago was free.

Before technology complicated our lives, TV viewing was one of life's pleasures: Flip on the black-and-white, adjust the rabbit ears (use of tin foil optional) and turn the knob to watch Walter Cronkite or giggle at "Gilligan's Island."

Today, the living room has turned into a digital nightmare. It takes an advanced degree in engineering to operate all of the black boxes, electronic gadgets and remote-control devices that have invaded our households.

Like most consumers who still struggle to program the VCR, I have resisted the urge to spend thousands of dollars on fancy home theater systems, DVD players, TiVo recorders and the like.

Instead, I have been content with the four basic TV food groups: ESPN, CNN, CSPAN and the major networks. But profit-hungry cable operators aren't satisfied providing such a lean menu. They want customers to upgrade to digital technology, which delivers hundreds of channels, premium cable networks such as HBO, every sporting event imaginable and pay-per-view programming. If the consumer balks at paying through the nose, some cable companies--including Adelphia--are threatening to cut off access to premium movie channels.

This shabby treatment has motivated many to switch to satellite (or steal it outright, but that's another story).

When my wife and I moved into our house last year, we intended to sign up for basic cable. But having never subscribed to a satellite service, I sought advice from colleagues at The Times. I might have been better off consulting Tarot readers on Venice Beach.

"Don't do cable," one reporter emphatically stated.

"Get DirecTV," insisted another.

One editor explained that he dropped cable two years ago to get DirecTV but now wants to switch back. "There are way too many channels to scroll through," he said of the satellite lineup.

Another editor said it all came down to how much sex we wanted to watch on the small screen. "That's the big difference," she said, referring to a crusade by Adelphia founder John Rigas to ban steamy fare from the airwaves.

After subscribing to each service, I now understand why so many people have such difficulty making up their minds. The array of pricing options and programming packages available is mind-boggling.

Digital Cable: The brave new digital world can be a bit intimidating at first. The instructions seem more fitting for a voyage across the Pacific than turning on a television set.

The Adelphia cable guy left behind a videotape explaining how to control the 46-button remote and a brochure on "How to navigate through the Interactive Program Guide."

The literature states that it could take as long as four hours "to fully load the data necessary to operate the interactive guide and the navigator options."

I have found surfing with the remote a frustrating experience. Punch in a three-digit number and the channel pops up on the screen. To get a two-digit channel, it is necessary to hit the OK button immediately afterward. After several months of use, I still struggle at times using the remote to switch channels.

There also is a slight but irritating delay when changing channels. This is particularly noticeable when surfing through channels in numerical sequence. With each channel, it takes a moment for the program to appear. That's because digital transmissions take time for the set-top box to lock in a complete picture from a new channel.

Funny how these problems never surfaced during the RCA era.

The Adelphia interactive guide comes with clever features such as programming favorite channels in advance or locking out shows by rating, channel or title to keep children from watching "Debbie Does Dallas."

One feature I enjoy is the 45 digital music channels--classic R&B, rap, oldies, big band, classical, gospel and Tejano among them. Because our TV is connected to a pair of Bose speakers, the sound quality is exceptional.

The same cannot be said of the video reception. Though the picture is clear, a wide horizontal band slowly scrolls up the screen on occasion on certain local broadcast stations and cable networks.

A visit by the cable guy failed to correct the problem. He wrote "No Prob Found" on the work order and went on his way.

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