BusinessWeek Lifestyle: Home Entertainment
Satellite TV: Why I Love My Dish
Satellite has clearer picture and sound, more channels--and it's often cheaper than cable
It's the great American pastime, trashing your cable-TV company. I've been doing it for years. I've stewed about a sloppy installation that looped the cable outside the house from the first to the second floor, service outages at the merest hint of rain, and arbitrary channel reassignments that left me surfing for my favorites. Then there was bill creep: $2 here, $5 there, more than 150% over the past 10 years. Always with the promise of more channels I didn't need.
So I pulled the plug on my cable company. On May 1, the day Time Warner Communications kicked the ABC network off its cable systems in seven big cities, I picked up the phone and dialed EchoStar Communications. Now, a 20-inch satellite dish is perched on my roof.
Satellite TV offers a number of advantages over cable. Its digital signal provides a vastly improved picture and clear, CD-quality sound. It also has virtually unlimited capacity, with providers currently advertising up to 500 channels. That means you can get expanded basic service, with everything from A&E to ZDTV, for about $40 a month, and as many seasonal sports packages and movie channels as you're willing to pay for.
Satellite TV often is cheaper on a month-to-month basis than cable. Of course, you must buy the dish and the VCR-size black box that decodes the signals, at prices starting around $100 and going as high as $400. But the satellite companies, EchoStar and DirecTV, offset the cost by offering frequent promotions that rebate part or all of the equipment and installation charges when you agree to a year's subscription. DirecTV, for example, offered $99 cash back and free installation in some markets where Time Warner blacked out ABC, and got more than 25,000 takers within the first 12 days.LOCAL NEWS, TOO. So why didn't I make the move to satellite sooner? Until recently, local TV stations were not available over satellite TV unless you could prove you couldn't get a watchable signal with a conventional antenna. Even then, you only had access to the ABC, CBS, BBC, or Fox broadcasts from New York or Los Angeles, giving most subscribers the national network shows but not their local TV news. Most others had to be content with wiring the antenna and satellite inputs into a switch box and physically changing between the two depending on the shows they wanted to see.
That began changing late last year when Congress passed legislation allowing the satellite companies to retransmit local broadcasts. Now, satellite providers are racing to add the local affiliates of the four networks in all major markets. EchoStar has local coverage in 28 markets and charges subscribers an extra $4.99 a month for it; DirecTV charges $5.99 and offers local stations in 23 markets. Without an antenna, you'll have to forego other local stations, although Dawson's Creek fans will find the WB network shows on such superstations as WGN, available in some subscription packages. And PBS has a national feed just for satellite. At $1 per month on EchoStar, it's well worth it just to avoid those pesky pledge drives.ROCKET SCIENCE. I started exploring the satellite option when the local stations became available early this year, and I quickly figured out that EchoStar was my only choice. Unlike cable, which passes by most houses, satellite TV requires an unobstructed view of the southern sky to receive a signal. If you're not sure whether you have a clear view, go to either company's Web site to learn the azimuth, or the compass heading, and the elevation, or the angle from the horizon, that your dish must be set at, based on your Zip Code. At www.directv.com, you'll find it under Dish Pointer in the Getting Started section. EchoStar (www.echostar.com) makes this exercise unnecessarily complicated, requiring that you download and install a calculator before you can type in your Zip Code. Living in the hilly part of Los Angeles, I discovered that the DirecTV dish would point into my neighbor's living room; EchoStar's DISHPlayer missed both his house and the hill behind it.
While you're at the Web sites, you can scope out the services you want and the equipment you'll need. If you favor foreign-language programming, EchoStar carries a large selection, ranging from Radio France Internationale at $1 a month to Japan's NHK for $25. But these feeds, as well as the local broadcast signals for many small cities, are beamed over a second satellite. So you'll need a slightly larger dish--one that can see both birds at the same time. DirecTV, the obvious choice for sports fanatics with its "season tickets" for most major sporting events, receives most of its programs from one satellite.
You should also figure out how many TV sets you want to wire to the satellite signal. With basic cable, it's simple to split the signal and run it to a second set or a VCR so that you can record a program on one channel while watching a different program on the TV. Not so with satellite TV. If you want an independent signal running to different sets or VCRs, you'll need a separate $100 receiver for each one. And you'll need a dish that can deliver two or more signals--look for the so-called dual- or quad-LNB models. The costs can mount pretty quickly for multiple-TV households.
DirecTV systems come from a number of manufacturers, including Sony, Panasonic, Hughes Electronics, and Thomson's RCA and ProScan brands. They're available at most audio-video retailers. EchoStar sells and installs its own equipment. You can order it by phone (800 333-3474) or from the Web site. Retail distribution is limited, but the few national chains that carry EchoStar systems, including Sears, Target, and several warehouse clubs, often undercut the company's prices. My local Costco, for example, sells the basic two-satellite Dish 500 model for $180, which means you can pocket the difference between that and EchoStar's current $199 rebate. Costco also throws in installation for free.TIME MACHINE. More than half of all satellite TV subscribers, however, install the dish themselves. It doesn't have to be on the roof; it can be mounted on the side of the house or clamped to a fence or balcony rail. Apartment and condo dwellers needn't worry any longer about restrictions. Since last year, it has been legal to install a dish on private balconies and patios or in gardens.
I opted for the $399 EchoStar system ($200 after the rebate) with all the bells and whistles. That includes Microsoft's latest version of WebTV, with such slick features as a built-in hard-disk drive, which lets you record up to 12 hours of programs and pause live broadcasts for up to a half-hour while, let's say, you answer the telephone. The most obvious improvement over my cable service, once I got everything hooked up, was the superior picture and sound. For $36 a month, a $10 saving, I duplicated virtually everything I'd been getting from my cable company. So I splurged and added seven HBO channels for $11.99. (My cable company charges $14.65 for one HBO channel.) The change has left me a bit disoriented, since the channels have different numbers than I'm used to and a few cable network signals aren't delayed three hours for the West Coast time zone. But that's a small price to pay for my newfound freedom of choice.By Larry ArmstrongReturn to top