United Satellite Communications Inc. went off the air this week, leaving some 9,000 subscribers in the East and Midwest with empty satellite dishes and blank television screens.
The April 1 blackout of the New York-based, satellite-to-home television network came after USCI failed to pay a $600,000 monthly "linkup fee" to keep its programs on the air, investors in the financially wavering television company said yesterday.
The fee, usually due a month in advance of services rendered, was owed to Atlantic Satellite Communications of Northvale, N.J. But officials at that company were unavailable for comment yesterday.
Hundreds of subscribers in Washington and 30 nearby counties, many of whom paid as much as $750 apiece to buy one-meter-diameter dish antennae to receive USCI channels, got static instead when they turned on their televisions Monday morning.
"Some April Fool's Day! There was nothing on the tube when we turned it on," said Joan Wood, a USCI subscriber in Springfield. Wood said that repeated phone calls to USCI headquarters in New York drew no response. "But, finally, that afternoon, they put a brief message on the air saying that they were discontinuing service, but that they hoped to come back later," she said.
USCI President Nathaniel Kwit was unavailable for comment yesterday, and company officials refused to comment on his behalf. But a spokesman for Prudential Insurance Company of America, USCI's largest investor, said that the satellite network currently is engaged in "merger or acquisition talks with another company" that could rescue it from financial failure.
The Prudential spokesman refused to identify the other company in the talks. The two-year-old USCI twice before sought a merger to end its money problems. But those efforts, including an attempted relationship with Washington-based Communications Satellite Corp. (COMSAT), came to naught.
Comsat said last December that market risks in the satellite-to-home television business were unacceptable, a conclusion also reached last year by Western Union Telegraph Co. and CBS Inc.
USCI's Kwit predicted in 1983 that his company would have 2.3 million subscribers by 1988. But the high cost of satellite dishes, coupled with monthly service fees ranging from $25 to $40, dampened consumer interest in direct-broadcast satellite programming, telecommunications industry analysts said.
The spokesman for Prudential, which has a $45 million investment in the satellite network, said that USCI has not filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws. "The company still exists," the Prudential spokesman said.
However, that declaration is of little consolation to Charles Hisey, who last year plunked down $750 "plus taxes" to put a satellite dish atop his house in Madison, Va.
"We though that this satellite was the answer to our prayers. But now it looks like we're just out on a limb."