First, it was cable television. Now it's direct broadcast satellite (DBS) that is causing static in the television industry picture.
Industry observers say that if cable has warmed up the competition for TV viewers, it should get hot with the start-up of DBS.
DBS uses high-power communications satellites to beam a television signal directly to a small (about 30 inches wide) dish in a backyard, on a roof, or attached to a chimney. The program menu will look a lot like today's cable pay TV: recent film classics, popular concerts, children's shows, and public affairs.
The difference is that DBS will arrive straight from the program source instead of being sent via a commercial or cable network and local TV station affiliate.
By early summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to give tentative approval to eight companies with big plans for DBS -- although this may ultimately be affected by an international conference scheduled for 1983 that will parcel out microwave frequencies to each country.
The first wave of DBS firms is expected to add from 20 to 25 new TV channels and tiny, inexpensive satellite dishes are expected to sprout in millions of backyards.
Every step of the way, the commercial networks have fought DBS. When DBS arrives, some worry that it could wipe out network, independent, and cable television as we now know it because it does away with the need for a program middleman.
But a report commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) says DBS ''poses only a minor threat to current broadcast activities,'' because its head-on competition will be pay TV services. The report adds that while some worry that it will ''replace the traditional local affiliates for the distribution of network programming,'' that's unlikely because the networks could have gone satellite long ago and chose not to.
Right now, cost gives cable and commercial TV an advantage over DBS. Besides a monthly fee of about $20, a DBS customer will have to buy the antenna and install it (about $100), and either buy the related hardware for another several hundred dollars or rent it for an added $8 or so a month. The upshot: It will cost the consumer more for about the same programming already found on cabled pay TV.
The higher cost is why the first DBS market will be the millions of household in remote rural areas too expensive to wire for cable TV. Indeed, those homes not tied into cable services by the mid-1980s will be the target for Satellite Television Corporation, says STC manager of communications David Price. His company so far has moved forward the fastest and farthest with DBS.
One reason DBS has commercial networks and independents concerned is that it is expected to touch off an avalanche of new competition.
''It's like competing with dozens of new kids on the block,'' said Jonathan Blake, attorney for the three major network affiliation associations and the Association of Maximum Service Telecasters. Mr. Blake told a recent Association of Independent Television Stations convention that DBS is ''the biggest threat you face.''
But competition is exactly what Rep. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado wants. Representative Wirth is chairman of the House Sucommittee on Telecommunications that held hearings on DBS in December.
''We want to increase the diversity of sources and competition in the video marketplace,'' says Wirth. He says he wasn't surprised that the broadcasting industry has fought the arrival of DBS. ''When you have a corner of the market you never want to see competitors come in.''
The prize in the competition extends beyond viewers. The broadcasting establishment is worried that an entire band of microwave frequencies is likely to be allocated to direct-to-home broadcasting - frequencies conventional broadcasters would like to use for high definition TV (HDTV). HDTV - a variation of DBS - is an experimental technology that improves the TV picture to the point that it's almost of film-like quality. Industry spokesmen say it is the major new technology of the 1980s.
''We want a chance to take part in the satellite technology. We want to be able to use the band for HDTV,'' says Marilyn O'Connor Dimling of the National Association of Broadcasters. But HDTV technology still has a ways to go.
The NAB argues that DBS will take up precious satellite frequencies to simply duplicate the same kind of programming a viewer can already get for less money on cable, pay, or commercial TV.
For its part, the cable TV industry is ''more fearful of the regulatory environment than the competitive environment,'' says Ed Dooley, National Cable TV Association's vice-president for public affairs. He says he's more concerned with being hamstrung by city franchise fees.