In Satellite TV, Cost, Dish-Size Shrink As Quality Improves

If you want to see the future of television, get satellite TV.

It offers a next-generation picture, an on-screen program guide, and far more control over what a family watches than current cable TV systems do. The best part is that satellite TV costs roughly the same as cable.

Some of the more popular companies are signing up hundreds and even thousands of customers a day. If you watch at least a moderate amount of television, and especially if you're a fan of premium channels for movies or sports, consider making the switch to satellite TV. It's becoming serious competition for the cable industry.

"It's better TV," says Stan Hubbard, president and chief executive of US Satellite Broadcasting (USSB). After trying out two satellite systems for nearly a year, I have to agree. I particularly like the DirecTV and USSB programming on the Digital Satellite System equipment as well as the offerings from an up-and-coming competitor called Dish Network.

Mention satellite television, and many people conjure up those huge dishes of yesteryear. You can still see them dotting the countryside. But technology has shrunk the dish to 18 inches, a little bigger than a large pizza.

Most of the new systems, called direct-broadcast satellite or DBS, are also easier to operate. Instead of moving from satellite to satellite for various programs, as the old systems do, DBS systems track a single satellite.

The most striking thing about DBS is its on-screen controls. A few clicks of the remote can order a movie, block access to adult movies, or open an on-screen guide that lets viewers see listings of all the science-fiction movies or TV dramas playing. Change a channel and most systems display the name of the program and its start and finish times. That last feature is very handy for those times when you happen onto a movie and wonder how much of the beginning you've missed.

Another plus: DBS's picture is digital and better-looking than cable's analog signal. Of course, a lot depends on the TV hooked up to it. On a small set, it's hard to tell a difference; on a 27-inch screen, it's easy to spot. DBS companies like to brag that their digital sound is also better, but I couldn't tell a difference.

Another potential benefit is cost. In high-priced cable areas, and for viewers currently buying premium cable channels, satellite TV may actually be cheaper than cable. Dish Network, for example, offers a package of 40 channels typically offered by a cable system for only $25 a month (although you have to pre-pay a whole year).

Of course, DBS involves other costs too. You usually have to buy a DBS dish and receiver, typically $200. Installation is another $150 to $200. If you're handy enough to put in an automatic garage-door opener, you can install the system yourself.

A DBS company called Primestar offers a no-own alternative. For about $33 a month, it will sell you its basic programming and rent you the equipment. You still have to pay for installation.

DBS has some drawbacks. It doesn't carry local broadcast channels, so to get the local TV news you have to switch to an antenna. This requires two remote controls.

Also, when it rains very heavily, the picture disintegrates. I experienced it twice in nearly a year of viewing. Once the rain slacked off, the picture came back.

DBS is a young and still-evolving technology. But it's starting to challenge cable for a share of America's living rooms. And with good reason - until cable TV catches up.

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