Congress has acted, the satellite-TV companies have responded, and "E.R.," "The Drew Carey Show" and "60 Minutes" have been liberated from cable and rabbit-ears antennas. But "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" isn't quite out of the woods yet.
The Satellite Home Viewer Act, signed into law Nov. 29, allowed satellite broadcasters to begin carrying local network signals, a long-awaited development for customers of these services who previously had to rely on antennas or basic-cable subscriptions to receive programming from local major-network affiliates--in the D.C. area, WJLA, WUSA, WRC and WTTG.
Until the passage of the act, satellite-TV providers were restricted from carrying network signals unless their customers could prove that their over-the-air reception met a legal standard of unsuitability, in which case they could receive a set of network signals from one city in the country. Congress had passed this restriction a decade ago, fearing that local broadcasters would lose advertising revenue if viewers could watch local broadcasts from other cities.
The two satellite services, DirecTV and Dish Network, didn't wait long to act. DirecTV is offering Washington area customers free access to the four major networks until Jan. 4, after which the extra service will cost an additional $5.99 a month.
Dish Network, meanwhile, now charges Washington area customers $4.99 a month to tune in to local ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates; an out-of-town feed of PBS, taken from a station in New York, costs an additional $1 a month.
Ed Barron, a Northwest Washington resident who has subscribed to DirecTV for more than three years, was glad to get the offer from the company days after the act was signed. "I called them and told them I'd take the free offer and that they could go ahead and sign me up for the $5.99 a month after that," he said. Barron had previously used an antenna to pull in signals from local broadcasters but had never been able to get a clear signal from WTTG, the local Fox affiliate. Before that, he'd had trouble receiving local channels via District Cablevision.
DirecTV, the larger of the two companies, has about 8 million customers; Dish Network has around 3 million. In comparison, the National Cable Television Association estimates about 67 million cable subscribers in the country. But the satellite services' subscriber numbers have grown rapidly since these companies began operation in 1995. This year, DirecTV and Dish Network together added more new customers than the cable industry did, according to John Coates, an analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, who predicted similar patterns of growth for next year.
So what's the math look like for you? After the cost of the satellite dish and receiver--usually $150, plus installation--the monthly subscription prices for basic channel packages have traditionally undercut comparable cable packages; with the cost of receiving local channels via satellite factored in, this will continue to be the case. In Washington, for instance, District Cablevision's and Starpower's basic cable packages cost $32.83 and $31.95. But DirecTV's basic service, plus local channels, costs $25.98; the total for an equivalent array of channels on Dish Network is $24.98.
Satellite subscribers face another drawback, though: Neither DirecTV nor Dish Network carries the D.C. affiliates of WB or UPN. DirecTV plans to launch a new "spot beam satellite" in 2001, which will allow the company to add capacity and, in turn, start broadcasting WB and UPN programming. Dish Network, meanwhile, offers broadcasts from the Denver and Boston affiliates of WB and UPN, respectively, as part of a $4.99 monthly "superstation" package. Both services also say they are continuing discussions with the two smaller broadcast networks.