"The skies aren't going to go dark," insists David Bondon. "Really!"
Bondon is no astronomer or master of the occult -- he's president of Brooks Satellite Inc., a chain of 25 stores that sell those backyard satellite dishes.
"Going dark" is his industry's euphemism for scrambling -- which is what most of the premium cable-television and network broadcasters plan to do with their television signals by the end of this year.
Scrambling is the hottest topic here in one of the fastest-growing segments of the consumer electronics industry, with people wondering what the future of home satellite dishes will be.
For years, pay-television services such as HBO and Showtime have resented the fact that owners of those large saucer-shaped satellite antennas could capture their programs for free.
In turn, all those programs ricocheting off satellites 22,400 miles overhead spurred a boom in satellite-dish demand. Indeed, some of these dishes can pick up more than 160 channels.
Last year, the electronics industry association estimates, 600,000 of these dishes were sold -- bringing the total number of backyard antennas to 1.6 million -- and the association foresees 700,000 sales this year.
But now, the technology is in place to turn those television signals into visual linguine and make dish owners pay for a special descrambler plus a monthly fee for the right to receive those signals.
HBO, the nation's leading pay TV service, starts scrambling next week and plans to charge dish owners $12.95 a month. Showtime, the No. 2 movie channel, plans to start scrambling shortly. So do MTV, Cable News Network, WTBS, Nickelodeon, Cinemax and The Disney Channel.
Even NBC and CBS plan to scramble their satellite feeds to their local affiliates.
And dish owners also would have to buy a decoder, to boot.
All this has sent the dish industry itself scrambling to assure existing and potential dish owners that their skies are still bright. But they concede that things do look a little bleak.
"Until the sky clears or the dust settles, this will have a negative impact on consumers," conceded Steven Dushane, executive vice president of Janeil Corp., a $35-million-a-year manufacturer of backyard dishes.
"I think there will be a three-month hiccough in sales," confided Brook Satellite's Bondon. "But in the long run, things will turn out fine."
In the short run, things look especially fine for M/A-Com, a Massachusetts-based company whose Videocipher II is the industry standard descrambler, and currently the only one on the market. It costs $495 and shipments began moving this week.
"We are prepared to sell 200,000 this year, but, frankly, we haven't the foggiest notion what the demand will be," said Rusty Galbreath, M/A-Com's director of marketing.
Galbreath said the Videocipher II can be added to existing dishes and that future satellite antennas will be manufactured with the descrambler built in.
Scrambling isn't a sure thing, however. There is now legislation in the House calling for a two-year moritorium on scrambling until such questions as payments to programmers are worked out.
Moreover, the Justice Department is exploring the antitrust implications of scrambling. However, even if all the cable-TV services and the networks choose to scramble, industry insiders point out that PBS, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., C-Span, the Armed Forces Network and the Alaska satellite TV project still will brighten the skies of the home satellite dish owners.