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Television and Radio: Hearts and Minds

The pluses and minuses of cable, satellite or just plain old free TV

By P.F. Wilson · April 9th, 2003 · Television and Radio

A whole TV generation is involved in the great debate. Just as cable TV surpassed the 50 percent mark in the number of wired-up homes, along came Direct Broadcast Satellite. Suddenly, more and more houses had those little dishes the size of garbage can lids tacked onto their roofs, gutters and chimneys.

The two sides have fought a pitched battle to gain customers and the all-important market share. Meanwhile, free TV has tried to remain viable while its counterparts duke it out.

With all of the savvy marketing and slick sales talk, it might be hard to figure out which system truly is the best for you. The decision is actually between four options -- free TV, regular cable, digital cable and satellite.

Free TV by its very name is attractive, as it costs zero dollars a month. You buy a set, attach an antenna and you're done. The downside, of course, is the number of channels you'll be able to get. Depending on where you live in the metro area, you might receive six to 14 channels -- essentially local broadcasters from Greater Cincinnati and Dayton.

Free TV is pretty cut-and-dried -- it's free, but choice is limited.

That leaves satellite and the two cable options.

Regular cable -- I'll use Time Warner for the comparison/contrast -- will get you about 60 channels and cost around $40 a month. Advantages include clear reception for all channels, local and national, and a greater chance of finding something worth watching.

Digital cable promises crystal-clear reception and about 150 channels, only one-third of which are "junk" channels. That will run you around $60 a month. There are also added features digital cable offers that regular cable doesn't give you, such as an on-screen program guide and the option of "video on demand." The latter lets you watch some networks programs whenever you want -- HBO was the first to be offered.

The final option is satellite, providing crystal-clear reception for roughly 61 channels. This is based on Dish Networks "America's Top 100" package (top 50 and top 150 are also offered). As you might have surmised, it's 100 channels, 40 percent of which you would probably never watch. That goes for around $33 a month; adding local channels brings it up to about $38. Satellite also gives you an on-screen program guide but no video on demand.

According to recent ads run by satellite providers, their programming is 100 percent digital while digital cable's is not, despite the name. This is apparently true, as Time Warner "adds" the digital channels to an analog package.

Satellite providers also have found a new way to position the extra cost of adding local channels to your lineup. They claim cable charges you for local channels, even if you can get them with a regular antenna. That line of thinking is a bit suspect.

Cable is required by law to give you all the local channels. Well, almost. Ask our guy Elliott Block at WBQC-TV 25 about that battle (see "Hot Dispute," issue of May 31-June 6, 2001). Satellite has no such "must carry" rule. Consider too that getting local channels with a regular antenna requires you to use an A/B switch to move from satellite to "over the air." Not complicated at all, mind you, but it does require you to get off the couch.

Reliability is also a big issue. For years cable has claimed in its ads that, should a storm roll through when "the big game" is on, your satellite will go out. Well, they're kinda right.

In my 10 years of cable service with Time Warner, the thing went out once and was back on in less than two hours. A good sustained rainfall has been known to foul up the satellite, though not yet during this so-called "big game."

Here's another consideration: Regular cable, if you're moderately handy, can be run to any cable-ready TV in your house. Digital and satellite require a special tuner at each set. That also means you can't tape one cable channel while watching another. (VCRs also have cable-ready tuners). You can, however, tape over-the-air TV and watch digital or satellite and visa versa, but taping ESPN and watching A&E is problematic.

Time Warner claims to be developing a tuner that will resolve this problem. They hope to have it out in late spring.



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