Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was

prepared for the March 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All

rights reserved.

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

TV!"

it commanded. Hurrying past on my way to Port Authority, I was

baffled.

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

television

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

company

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

alternative.

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

satellite.

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

systems,

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

television,"

VOD allows viewers to choose their programs from a menu of

always-available

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

counties,

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

choosing

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

documentary

on the invention of the television on the History Channel. "Just

touch an icon and it knows the History Channel is on channel 367,"

explains Cottingham.

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

system,

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.

Programs. Want to watch all of the Yankees’ home games?

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

television

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

ears.

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

allowed.

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

candidates

for local office. This is not possible with satellite, even with a

boost from an antenna. The solution: "Rabbit ears," says

Montague.

The contraptions — so familiar to viewers who watched first runs

of Ozzie and Harriet — still work on televisions, he assures.

Foreign Language Programming. It takes some finagling

— and some extra charges — to set up a home satellite

television

system so that it brings in all the programs that come in

automatically

with cable. But there is some programming that can not be had without

satellite. Most significantly, satellite can deliver substantial

foreign

language programming. I first discovered this at Aljon’s pizzeria

on Princeton-Hightstown Road. The television facing the service

counter

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

networks.

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

Television

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.

The YES Network — and beyond. The Dish Network would

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

fanatic,

or maybe a New Jersey Nets fan hoping to see Jason Kidd and his

teammates

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,

Entertainment,

and Sports — from a New York team many central New Jersey fans,

lacking a team of their own, follow with great enthusiasm. The

satellite

programmer refuses to pay the fee — $2 per subscriber — that

the YES Network demands. DirecTV has far less international

programming,

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

towns.

"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

announcement

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

anti-American

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

anti-trust

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

effects.

Jim Holanda just took over as president of Patriot Media, the

newly-formed

cable company which has purchased RCN’s New Jersey cable franchise.

"Programming rights are skyrocketing," he says,

"especially

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

Subcommittee

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

programming,

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.

Time shifting. The next issue for Yankee fans, now able

to pull in home games through their cable connection or through

DirecTV

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

commercial?

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

rapturous

about its charms. Most broadcasters, largely dependent upon revenue

from commercials, are opposed to time shifting, while cable and

satellite

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 —

automatically

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

satellite,

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.

"It

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

televisions.

High definition television. Cable offers a few programs

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

either

source. Montague, of Donnelly Antenna and Satellite, is busy applying

a fix.

"We’re putting up a lot of UHF antennas for people with high

definition

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

company)

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

Montague’s

view, to anything cable or satellite can deliver. So good is the

signal

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

antennas

work for high-end, tech crazy TV watchers with all the latest

equipment,

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

motorized

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

that,"

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.

Prices. A look at a price menu from either a satellite

company or a cable company is enough to bring the purchase of an

antenna

into consideration. Basic cable packages start at about $14.95, which

buys the major networks and about 10 to 15 public broadcasting,

regional,

and local stations. Another $10 or so ups the number of cable

channels,

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

additional

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

promotions.

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

install,

and each carries its own monthly charge, generally about $5.

Another difference is that satellite plans generally require a

contract

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

stops.

The picture. Satellite owners and installers swear that

a satellite picture is better than a cable picture — much better.

Cable owners tend to counter that satellite is unstable in bad

weather,

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

traveling

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.

"Broadcasters

are now adding HD," he says. "HD is better than

satellite."

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.

Guerrilla TV. While most of us look at a TV schedule and

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

and Elaine.

I have a friend who is supremely skilled at finding any television

or movie fare — any at all — and downloading it. Upon

committing

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.

Glancing

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,

please — make me a copy of the previous night’s Friends episode.

No problem, he said. After typing a few commands, he found the

episode,

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.

Broadcasters,

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.

All the bells and whistles. The viewing options for those

skilled in guerilla TV-watching are impressive, but they pale next

to the totally-legitimate excesses that occur when a

television/technology

obsession is married to a fat wallet.

Cottingham, the owner of home entertainment company PHC Toys, is

positively

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

Friday,"

he says during a conversation early in March. He had met the new

client

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

marquees,

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

through

plaster walls, but Cottingham does a fair number of these jobs.

When the home is historic, however, giant screens need to be

disguised.

Some people mount a plasma television screen over the mantel and then

place a work of art over it. The painting becomes motorized and

ascends

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

paintings.

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

networking

the family computer into the television. "The computer doesn’t

have to be in same room," he says. "It can be anywhere in

the house."

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

televisions

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

tragedies.

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.

"One-twenty-five

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

extension

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

board.

But he need not have worried. A nation just beginning to insert

"plasma

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

on-screen

transcends its medium, and that Americans will find the money to be

entertained in any number of ways. "I love my job," says

Cottingham.

"There’s nothing we sell that anybody really needs."


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