There are no buttons or T-shirts visible on the survivors from the troubled home-satellite-dish industry -- but if there were, the slogan would surely be, "I've Been Scrambled."
The market for the large saucer-shaped television antennas -- once a thriving segment of the consumer electronics industry -- literally tipped over when HBO and other premier programming services started scrambling their satellite signals six months ago.
"Scrambling hit the industry in the second week of January and it's dropped industry sales down 70 percent," said Robert Dushane, president of Janeil Corp., a California-based dish manufacturer. "Our dealers went from a three- or four-week supply of dishes to a 30-week supply. People just stopped buying."
Other industry figures are similarly bleak. At last winter's Consumer Electronics Show, 45 companies exhibited satellite dishes; at this summer's show here, the number has dropped to 30. The Electronics Industry Association, which earlier had forecast the sale of more than 700,000 satellite dishes this year, just slashed that forecast to 400,000 -- and some observers say that is optimistic.
The dish antennas allow individuals to pick up on their home TV sets satellite signals meant for such recipients as cable-system operators, who then distribute them to subscribers. The dishes first became popular in remote areas where residents could not get cable or ordinary reception. But in recent years they have gained wider appeal because they have given owners free access to dozens of channels, including some that normally charge fees.
It is these pay-TV services that have led the drive for scrambling. Others, such as networks transmitting "feeds" to local stations by means of satellite relay, have said they are considering scrambling their signals.
Industry executives blame the news media for "exaggerating" the importance of scrambling and confusing consumers about satellite programming. They point out that an authorized descrambler can be purchased for less than $300 and that pay cable-television services such as HBO and Showtime now sell subscriptions to dish owners for a monthly fee.
However, M/A-Com, the main manufacturer of the descramblers, concedes that fewer than 15,000 units have been sold -- enough to equip less than 2 percent of the estimated 1.7 million home dishes.
"There'll be a 75 percent shaking out of dish manufacturers," predicts Janeil's Dushane, whose own company's revenue is expected to plummet to less than $20 million this year from last year's $35 million high.
"A large number of distributors are going out of business," said Larry Bean, general manager of satellite distribution for Nebraska-based Chief Industries. "We know we can make a lot of good deals out there" in distressed purchases of satellite dishes.
But dish companies say they are certain they have a chance to come back if the cost of the scramblers will drop below $200, subscriptions to pay services become cheaper and the costs of satellite systems decline.
Typically, home dishes can cost close to $2,000, but some manufacturers are pushing price cuts.
However, the industry outlook is still as scrambled as an HBO satellite signal. There are no signs that decoder costs will decline soon, and there are rumblings that legal actions may be taken either to limit scrambling or force programming companies to offer cheaper pay television subscriptions to dish owners.