Direct TV venture offers choice to cable

August 23, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Television viewers in suburban Baltimore have a new alternative to cable television with the rollout of Primestar, a satellite TV venture offering up to 65 channels and a hefty schedule of sports programming.

The new service, which uses a dish that is less than half the size of conventional satellite TV receivers, became available yesterday in Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Carroll counties. Unlike other satellite ventures, Primestar incorporates the cost of the equipment in its monthly fees, which will range from $34.95 to $55.95.

The service offers much of the same programming that is found on local cable stations, but don't necessarily expect your cable operator to mourn if you switch. Primestar is co-owned by subsidiaries of six large cable television companies. Its distributor in the four counties is a unit of Comcast Corp., which holds cable franchises in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties.

The rights to offer the service in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County belong to Tele-Communications Inc. Coles Ruff, president of TCI's United Artists Cable in Baltimore, said his company will introduce the service in the city next year. A spokesman for TCI said he wasn't sure when the service will be launched in Anne Arundel.

Primestar is the cable industry's version of direct broadcast satellite (DBS), a technology that is now available in parts of the United States. DBS, which uses a smaller dish than conventional "backyard" satellite service, typically offers fewer channels for a smaller fee, making it comparable to cable packages.

David Nevins, a spokesman for Primestar, said that the service will be marketed to all potential customers but that it would be especially appropriate for customers who live in areas that cable doesn't reach.

Another important market is sports fanatics, Mr. Nevins said. Besides such cable fare as CNN, the Discovery Channel and the Family Channel, the $34.95 "economy" package offers 14 regional sports channels, including Home Team Sports -- which carries Orioles games when the team isn't on strike. The regional channels carry such programming as college football and basketball, the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs and World Wrestling Federation matches.

Various premium channels, such as HBO and Cinemax, can bring the monthly cost as high as $55.95.

Mr. Nevins said he did not expect many customers to drop their cable service entirely to switch to Primestar, because the satellite service does not include local broadcast stations. He said customers would more likely keep cable service but cut back to the most basic plan.

One difference between Primestar and competing satellite ventures is that customers can rent the dish and other equipment from the provider as part of the monthly rate instead of paying about $1,100 to install an 18-inch DBS dish, or about $2,700 for a 7-foot C-band dish. Primestar does charge a $195 installation fee for a single outlet.

Primestar soon will be joined in the Baltimore market by two competitors, both using 18-inch dishes. DirecTV, owned by GM Hughes Electronics Inc., is now in 12 U.S. markets and expects to be in Baltimore within two months. Hubbard Broadcasting Inc.'s USSB, which is up and running in 11 states, says it will come to Maryland this fall.

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