Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was
prepared for the March 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All
From Wasteland to Cornucopia
TV now offers everything you don’t need but want
Nearly 40 years ago a sandwich board appeared on the
sidewalk in front of a movie house on 42nd Street. "Ban Pay
it commanded. Hurrying past on my way to Port Authority, I was
Pay TV? How would that work? It would have to involve inserting coins
into a set, I decided, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out
how that could be done.
It was years — probably more than a decade — before I realized
that the tawdry B movie house was referring to cable television, and
seeing it as a menace to its continued existence. Cable didn’t kill
movie-going, of course. This despite the fact that the cable
the industry feared was greeted with enthusiasm wherever it was rolled
out. Lured by generally excellent reception and many more viewing
choices, 73,525,150 households in America are watching pay TV via
a cable hook-up.
Cable subscribers haven’t always been happy, though. In most suburbs
and small cities, there is no choice of cable system. Each cable
acts as a monopoly in its territory. Customers could complain about
high rates and poor service — and often did — but there wasn’t
much they could do. Until recently. For while there is rarely a choice
of cable providers, satellite TV has broadened its offerings —
and lowered its prices — to a point where it is a real
At the same time, antennas are staging a comeback and, even in central
New Jersey, are pulling in a better picture than either cable or
Once a television paradise, a confluence of New York and Philadelphia
programming and among the first areas in the country to throw away
rooftop antennas and replace them with cable, central New Jersey is
now gearing up for 21st century television powered by new cable
satellite choices, and powerful, fast-evolving technology.
No longer the only game in town, cable is staking its
future on video on demand (VOD). Sometimes called "two-way
VOD allows viewers to choose their programs from a menu of
choices. Programs can be fast-forwarded, paused, and then resumed.
The pitch is that viewers can watch the 11 o’clock news even if they
get home at midnight. They can skip the trip to the video store and
order up a movie online. They can catch-up on episodes of the Sopranos
they may have missed — or even watch the entire series all over
again — whenever they want to.
Comcast, which serves a number of towns in Mercer and Middlesex
began to offer VOD earlier this year, and Cablevision, which serves
Hamilton, offers VOD to most of its customers. Patriot Media, which
just purchased RCN’s cable franchise, is upgrading cable in the towns
it serves, which include Princeton, Montgomery, and Rocky Hill, in
preparation for offering VOD.
At the same time, satellite providers are including versions of replay
TV in their systems, often without charging for the hardware. Like
VOD, replay TV puts viewers in command, giving them a way to watch
television programs when it is convenient for them. Instead of
from a library of programs, as is the case with VOD, replay TV lets
viewers build their own libraries by tagging programs to be recorded
for later viewing.
Replay TV is available to cable viewers, too, but they must buy the
hardware separately, and pay an additional fee to the company which
provides the service.
Back when I spied that sandwich board, watching television was as
simple as choosing among the five or six programs on at any one time,
walking across a room, and turning a dial. Not anymore.
"When my parents babysit, they can’t turn the TV on," says
Paul Cottingham, owner of PHC Toys, a Pennington-based company which
installs home entertainment systems of breathtaking complexity. He
has simplified things for the grandparents by programming a remote
featuring "a little scientist who comes on and asks what you want
to do." Thus guided, his parents are able to watch, say, a
on the invention of the television on the History Channel. "Just
touch an icon and it knows the History Channel is on channel 367,"
Problem solved. For now. But television is evolving fast enough to
make the little scientist’s head spin. Access to everything available
could involve the installation of cable, satellite, a UHF antenna,
and, if you can believe it — rabbit ears. Watching in style means
purchasing a high definition set, preferably with a plasma screen,
and then adding a new wing onto the house to accommodate a sound
movie seating, and a popcorn machine. An alternative is to mount the
movie-quality screen over the fireplace and then hide it behind a
motorized work of art.
But back to the building blocks.
Prefer Philadelphia news to New York news? Want to watch news from
both Philadelphia and New York? Need to see your child’s football
games on television? Can’t imagine not receiving NBC or CBS? Enjoy
getting local with WZBN’s coverage of the Garden State? Think it’s
ridiculous that you can watch only a handful of high definition
programs on your new $10,000 plasma screen television? Tired of paying
to watch television?
All of these issues are involved in a decision on whether to go with
cable, satellite, or antenna — or to get familiar with rabbit
Cable viewers can get nearly every channel. Cable brings in all of
the major networks, their affiliates in Philadelphia and New York,
and a host of niche-interest channels for everyone from the golf nut
to the cook to the car racing enthusiast. Digital cable brings many
more choices. Add HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime to digital cable and
there truly are choices for everyone. Lots of choices.
Satellite offers oodles of speciality viewing also, but it lacks some
of the basics. Network programming is extra, and viewers are assigned
to receive that of affiliates in just one city. In Nebraska this would
not be a problem, but here in New Jersey it is.
Bob Montague, owner of Donnelly Antenna and Satellite in Hamilton,
explains. "Depending on the location, you get Philly or New York.
In Hamilton it’s Philly. In East Windsor and Cranbury, it’s Philly.
In Hightstown, it’s Philly, but above Hightstown, it’s New York. You
get up to Kingston, and it’s New York." There is no choice. The
assignment is made based on zip codes, and no substitutions are
There is a solution. Both Cottingham and Montague find themselves
installing more and more antennas. Positioned just right, there is
a good chance that an antenna can add Philadelphia programming for
the Phillies fan stuck in a Zip Code designed to receive New York
programming or New York programming for a Mets fan languishing in
a zip code designated to receive Philadelphia programming.
Whether allegiance lies with Philadelphia or New York, area residents
with kids in local schools probably want to be able to see school
plays and soccer matches on television. The civic-minded also want
to see broadcasts of school board meetings and debates between
for local office. This is not possible with satellite, even with a
boost from an antenna. The solution: "Rabbit ears," says
The contraptions — so familiar to viewers who watched first runs
of Ozzie and Harriet — still work on televisions, he assures.
— and some extra charges — to set up a home satellite
system so that it brings in all the programs that come in
with cable. But there is some programming that can not be had without
satellite. Most significantly, satellite can deliver substantial
language programming. I first discovered this at Aljon’s pizzeria
on Princeton-Hightstown Road. The television facing the service
is always on, showing soccer matches, news, and what appear to be
soap operas — all in Italian. The staff explains that cable brings
in only a few hours of Italian programming a day on a channel it must
share with programs from other nations. With satellite, though, the
best of Italian television is available 24 hours a day.
There are two main satellite programming companies, DirecTV and the
Dish Network. Both offer exhaustive Spanish language programming —
as does cable. Both DirecTV and the Dish Network also offer Phoenix
TV, a network of programs from Beijing, Taipei, and Shanghai broadcast
in Mandarin Chinese. But the Dish Network goes way beyond Spanish
and Chinese. It offers Arabic, South Asian, Polish, and Greek
Each network contains many channels. The Arabic package, for example,
includes up to 10 channels, and the South Asian package includes five
networks, including Bollywood for You and Sony Entertainment
Asia, "a Hindi-language channel providing a multitude of programs
for every generation."
In addition to full networks of foreign language programming, priced
from about $20 a month for Polish up to about $37 a month for Greek,
Dish carries a number of international channels, including Beste van
Vlaanderen for Dutch and Flemish speakers, Radio Maria Italy —
the voice of the Vatican, the Israeli Network, TV Japan, and Arirang
TV from Korea. These choices generally add $9 to $14 a month to a
satellite bill. International programming, whether from DirecTV or
from the Dish Network, requires a second dish.
seem to be a clear choice for a household with strong ties to another
country. But wait, what if that family also includes a Yankees
or maybe a New Jersey Nets fan hoping to see Jason Kidd and his
go all the way this year? Then the choice becomes more complicated.
For while the Dish Network is unrivaled in the breadth of its foreign
language programming, it does not carry the YES Network, the home
of the Yankees and the Nets, which takes its name — Yankees,
and Sports — from a New York team many central New Jersey fans,
lacking a team of their own, follow with great enthusiasm. The
programmer refuses to pay the fee — $2 per subscriber — that
the YES Network demands. DirecTV has far less international
but it does have the YES Network, and counts this as a major marketing
advantage in New Jersey, giving it an edge not only over the Dish
Network, but also — until very recently — over cable in many
"We have the Yankees and the Nets, but Cablevision doesn’t,"
says Jade Valine, spokesperson for DirecTV, taking aim at the cable
competition. That was in early-March. On March 12, there was an
that Cablevision and the YES Network had reached an agreement —
but for one year only. Propelling the truce was aggressive YES Network
radio commercials, lambasting Cablevision for being all but
in separating its viewers from the Yankees.
When appealing to public opinion — with a heavy dose of attitude
and a Bronx accent — didn’t work, the network got the New Jersey
legislature to jumped into the fray. A bill to require Cablevision
to carry the YES Network passed the New Jersey Assembly on March 4
by a 47 to 20. The YES Network, and its supporters, claimed an
violation by Cablevision, which owns networks — including MSG
and Fox Sports Net, whose programming it carries — as well as
a cable system.
Cablevision’s capitulation, albeit temporary, could have far-ranging
Jim Holanda just took over as president of Patriot Media, the
cable company which has purchased RCN’s New Jersey cable franchise.
"Programming rights are skyrocketing," he says,
sports programming rights. Players get $15 million, the owner sells
rights for a God-awful amount of money to the network, and the network
passes it along." Comcast, by far the largest cable television
company, may be able to afford the fees demanded by a YES Network,
but other companies struggle with them.
Last spring, when the YES Network began to wrangle with Cablevision,
Congressman Eliot Engel (D. Bronx/Westchester) wrote to the
on Telecommunications and the Internet in the U.S. Congress, saying
"As more professional sports teams look to boost their revenues
this situation could be replicated throughout the nation. If this
dispute is not resolved in a timely manner, I would urge you to hold
hearings on this issue."
While Representative Engel was concerned about rights to sports
the issue goes beyond sports. An article appearing in The Wall Street
Journal earlier this month reported that Disney is attempting to hike
the fees it charges programmers to carry its ABC Family channel by
35 percent. In response, DirecTV is threatening to remove the channel
from its line-up. According to The Wall Street Journal, DirecTV’s
move could embolden other programmers to drop ABC Family.
to pull in home games through their cable connection or through
satellite, could be: When to watch? Or even, how much is it worth
to me to watch a whole game without ever having to sit through a
Time shifting devices make it possible to watch a program at any time,
and to zap right past commercials. While consumers have been slow
to adopt time-shifting technology, those who have signed up grow
about its charms. Most broadcasters, largely dependent upon revenue
from commercials, are opposed to time shifting, while cable and
programmers tend to see it as a boon.
Anyone with a cable hook-up can go out and buy a personal digital
recorder (PVR). The choices, for now, are Replay TV, from SonicBlue,
or a Tivo, from a number of manufacturers, including Sony and Hughes.
Costs have come down and hard-drive space has gone up. The units are
now available for about $249 for up to 40 hours of recording time
and $349 for up to about 80 hours of recording time. Hooked up to
a phone line, the units present a menu of upcoming programs from which
to pick and choose. Once recorded, the programs can be watched any
time, and fast-forwarding does away with commercials —
on the Replay TV and with the press of a button on Tivo.
DirecTV and the Dish Network both offer systems with PVR capability
built in. DirecTV now has a promotion offering a 35-hour Tivo unit
basically free. "This is our answer to video on demand," says
Robert Mercer, a DirecTV spokesperson. "We’re going to be really
aggressive in pushing content to a consumer’s hard drive." DirecTV
charges $4.95 a month for Tivo service, which loads through the
with no need to connect to phone lines.
The Dish Network manufacturers its own replay TVs in two models. The
lower end model records up to 70 hours, but does not let viewers watch
one program while recording another. The more advanced unit records
up to 110 hours. "You can record two programs, or watch one and
record one," explains Mark Lumpkin, a company spokesperson.
has picture on picture on any TV set," he adds. The less expensive
unit sells for $299, while the more advanced unit sells for $549.
Consumers can time shift through VOD, a combination of cable VOD and
a PVR, or a satellite equipped with a PVR. Generally, however, it
is possible to do so on only one television at a time, making time
shifting a very expensive proposition for households with multiple
in high definition (HD) and satellite offers some HD programming as
an option, but viewers with $5,000 HDTVs in their living rooms are
frustrated at the tiny quantity of HD programming available from
source. Montague, of Donnelly Antenna and Satellite, is busy applying
"We’re putting up a lot of UHF antennas for people with high
TV," he says. The antennas pull in high definition programs from
all the major networks. "Two weeks before the Super Bowl, I put
up eight UHF antennas," says Montague. "Some cable systems
don’t have any high definition. Like Princeton. Their cable system
is ancient. Hamilton has a few HD signals. Dish (the satellite
has a couple." But, he says, "a lot of guys with HDTVs want
to watch sports on TV."
The HD signals pulled in by a UHF antenna are far superior, in
view, to anything cable or satellite can deliver. So good is the
that a number of his customers are doing something that would have
been unthinkable in the early days of cable, when antennas were being
yanked from roofs right and left. They’re canceling cable. The
work for high-end, tech crazy TV watchers with all the latest
but also for folks who just want to watch the news, a little PBS,
and maybe the West Wing.
"A lot of customers don’t want to watch a lot of TV," says
Montague, "and they don’t want to pay for it." With a
antenna swiveling to catch signals, viewers in central New Jersey,
midway between New York and Philadelphia, can pull in 25 channels,
many in glorious HD. No charge. "A lot of people are doing
says Montague. "They’re tired of cable bills. For years cable
had a monopoly." An antenna will bring in the major networks,
public television, UPN, the WB, PAX TV, and, says Montague, "a
lot of public service stations." Viewers who have not sprung for
an HDTV set still get a good signal, equal, in Montague’s opinion,
to that delivered by cable.
A motorized antenna is $379 installed, says Montague. He charges about
$98 to wire two additional televisions. Once the antenna is in, there
is nothing more to spend.
An antenna capable of bringing in HD signals runs about $429. The
HD antenna is hooked up to the home’s satellite or cable system, and
operates seamlessly with it.
company or a cable company is enough to bring the purchase of an
into consideration. Basic cable packages start at about $14.95, which
buys the major networks and about 10 to 15 public broadcasting,
and local stations. Another $10 or so ups the number of cable
generally adding A&E, the Cartoon Network, VH1, and 15 or so more.
Cable systems that offer VOD, including Comcast and Cablevision, tack
on about $10 for the on-demand feature, which is bundled with
programming. Including popular sports channels such as ESPN and Fox
Sports, along with dozens more specialized offerings, brings the bill
to $65. Want to see the Sopranos or other popular HBO series? Make
that about $85. Watching back episodes of the Sopranos on Cablevision,
the only area cable company to offer HBO on Demand, adds $4.95. Other
on-demand channels — Showtime, Cinemax, IFC, and Playboy —
command $4.95 each on Cablevision. Comcast offers Showtime on Demand
free, and plans to add its other premium on-demand fare at no charge
when it is available. A full season of football, hockey, or basketball
adds another $150 or so per season.
Satellite pricing is more complicated, and is driven by frequent
DirecTV is now offering one dish and two receivers for $49 installed,
and the $49 often is refunded. The Dish Network counters with "up
to four" receivers for about the same price. Basic packages begin
at about $25 and go up to $75.
A key difference is that cable subscribers are entitled to have as
many rooms wired as they want, at no extra charge. Cable — but
not digital cable — does not cost any more for a family with six
televisions going at once than it does for the single-set family.
With satellite, each set needs its own receiver. Extra receivers,
beyond the number included in a promotion, cost more to buy and
and each carries its own monthly charge, generally about $5.
Another difference is that satellite plans generally require a
and a one-year commitment, whereas cable can be canceled at any time,
and changes to programming packages can be made without penalty. The
same is true for digital cable. Just return the box, and the billing
a satellite picture is better than a cable picture — much better.
Cable owners tend to counter that satellite is unstable in bad
and that cable, and especially digital cable, offers reception that
is every bit as good as that delivered by satellite. Montague, who
installs a lot of satellite systems, but also puts up antennas, puts
forward a good case for the unsurpassed quality of an HD signal
through a UHF antenna.
I called upon Doug Dixon, Sarnoff technologist and author of Desktop
DVD Authoring, to cut through the static. In the satellite versus
cable battle, satellite often has the edge, he says. "There are
only a few satellites," he explains, "so the format is set.
Whereas with cable, there are many different companies buying many
different technologies to add digital to an analog signal. They all
started out with different wires and ways to send analog and then
added digital by buying different products. It isn’t easy to make
a single broad generalization."
That said, Dixon goes on to weigh a new factor — HD.
are now adding HD," he says. "HD is better than
Most satellite customers don’t get HD, which has four times the video
quality of most current pictures. But when satellite does go to HD,
it will be in a position to offer the hard-to-surpass picture that
now can be had via some antennas and some cable signals.
choose a program, a few of our neighbors know no bounds. While we
watch the West Wing, they sit back with Chicago, The Hours, or another
first run movie. When a hankering for a private Seinfeld festival
hits, they log on, download favorite episodes to a CD, pop it in the
DVD, and settle in on the couch to spend some quality time with Jerry
I have a friend who is supremely skilled at finding any television
or movie fare — any at all — and downloading it. Upon
a horrible gaff, I asked him to download a just-aired sitcom.
This is what happened. I called my son on a Thursday, and got his
fiance on the phone. Alina and I had a lovely, far-ranging chat. It
was only when I hung up that I sensed that something was wrong.
at my watch, I saw that it was past 9 p.m. What day is this? I wildly
demanded of my spouse.
It was Thursday, the day that Friends, my almost-daughter-in-law’s
favorite program, airs at 8 p.m. I had yacked right through it!
The next day, I asked my friend, who should probably remain nameless,
given the tangle of copyright issues involved, if he could —
please — make me a copy of the previous night’s Friends episode.
No problem, he said. After typing a few commands, he found the
marked it for download, and gave it to me on a CD.
In addition to mining the limitless televideo resources of the ‘Net,
this friend has a DVD player connected to the Tivo that is connected
to his satellite system. This means that he can easily make a copy
of anything that plays on television — at least for now.
increasingly unhappy at the freewheeling ways of guerrilla TV viewers,
are threatening to make it impossible to download programs.
It is not clear whether there would be any sort of exemption for an
almost-mother-in-law trying hard to start off on the right foot.
skilled in guerilla TV-watching are impressive, but they pale next
to the totally-legitimate excesses that occur when a
obsession is married to a fat wallet.
Cottingham, the owner of home entertainment company PHC Toys, is
gleeful in describing the ultra-cool television set-ups he is busy
installing. Demand for high-end TV watching is way up. "I have
five installers," he says. "It’s hard to get good people.
If I had 10, I could keep them busy round the clock." He works
throughout central New Jersey, but not infrequently is called upon
to do a big job out of state. "I’m flying to Sarasota on
he says during a conversation early in March. He had met the new
during a round of golf, and was off to install a dream TV system in
his new house.
Clients tell Cottingham that they are pulling money out of the stock
market and putting it into their homes. Some spend into six figures
for a home entertainment system, often building a new wing to house
it. He describes a recent project, which includes reclining, connected
leather theater seats, tables "like film reels," movie
and a popcorn machine.
For a client in Sargeantsville, Cottingham went outdoors. "We
did an outdoor drive-in," he says. A giant screen, along with
Dolby surround sound, went in to the back yard. "It’s perfect
for summer parties," says Cottingham.
Many of Cunningham’s jobs involve new homes, where it is relatively
easy to run the wiring to support advanced entertainment and home
security systems. But owners of 100-year-old homes are showing an
interest in the latest television technology, too. Wiring is more
difficult — and much more expensive — when it has to go
plaster walls, but Cottingham does a fair number of these jobs.
When the home is historic, however, giant screens need to be
Some people mount a plasma television screen over the mantel and then
place a work of art over it. The painting becomes motorized and
when the family wants to watch a little CNN or MTV.
Those who prefer a more liquid — and hip — approach can go
to www.webshots.com The site contains an extensive library of
Clients choose the three, or six, or twelve, or 120 they like best
and show them in rotation on a plasma screen above the mantel. Those
wanting to celebrate the new Degas show in Philadelphia, for example,
will find 10 pages of Degas paintings on the site. Downloads are free.
Cottingham makes the television-mounted art show possible by
the family computer into the television. "The computer doesn’t
have to be in same room," he says. "It can be anywhere in
For those who prefer a more personal touch, Cottingham can set the
television to display slide shows of family photos. He did this for
a client’s Christmas party. "There were five plasma screen
throughout the house," he says. Apparently the client’s family
vacation and milestone shots were better than most — or maybe
it was just the novelty, but Cottingham swears that guests clustered
around the TVs all throughout the party.
Another option, also easily obtained from webshots.com, is to turn
the living room television into a fishless aquarium, with all the
color and motion of the real thing, but none of the over-feeding
Cunningham’s high-end clients generally use a satellite, but many
goose it up with an antenna, add a Tivo and a DVD player, and then
keep the cable too. The cable stays because of the local channels
it pulls in and because one cable hook-up can feed programs to every
television in the house. The full-featured system goes in the main
television viewing area, while the kitchen and the kids rooms (and
probably the bathrooms, too) make do with plain old cable.
Actually, after Cottingham gets through, the cable is not so plain
anymore. "Say you’re watching a DVD in the family room and you
want to finish it in bed," he posits. No problem. "I create
TV channels that are those devices," he explains.
for DVD, 123 for Tivo, 121 for the front door cam." The stations
are internal, and they turn each television in the house into an
of the uber-TV in the media room. Start to watch Lilo and Stitch on
DVD in the den, climb into bed, punch in channel 125, and finish the
movie before drifting off. Should there be a suspicious noise, take
a look at what is going on outside the house on the very screen on
which the movie is winding down.
While the child performing this electronic feat could expect to have
sweet dreams, imagine the nightmares this scenario would have caused
the movie house proprietor who put out that Ban Pay TV! sandwich
But he need not have worried. A nation just beginning to insert
screen," "Tivo," and "HDTV" into its vocabulary,
goes to the movies and then enjoys watching them all over again at
home. It turns out that a love affair with watching lives unfold
transcends its medium, and that Americans will find the money to be
entertained in any number of ways. "I love my job," says
"There’s nothing we sell that anybody really needs."
Corrections or additions?
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