Primestar strikes back in TV wars Satellite operator adds new channels to compete with cable

Prices won't be raised

Move doesn't address inability to offer network affiliates

April 21, 1997|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Primestar, one of the largest of the satellite TV operators that have sprung up to compete with cable, upped the ante over the weekend by adding 65 new audio and video channels to its offering without raising prices.

In part, the new offerings simply catch Primestar up with programming that cable already offers; 10 of the 22 new channels of conventional programming are already available in Baltimore suburbs where Comcast Corp. has finished replacing older coaxial cable systems with fiber-optic upgrades.

And the changes do not address satellite TV's key disadvantage: its inability under the law to offer local network affiliates.

However, the new offerings bring Primestar's total lineup to 160 channels and include local sports channels from around the nation, several channels for independent films, 10 new pay-per-view channels and 16 new audio-only music channels.

"I don't know if you call it playing catch-up or not," said Curt Pendleton, mid-Atlantic vice president and general manager for Prime-star by Comcast. "It's a continual upgrade process. One thing this has been built on is upgrading at no cost to the consumer."

Primestar is owned by a consortium of six cable companies including Comcast, which manages Primestar's mid-Atlantic affiliate.

The new channels include cable staples such as C-SPAN 2, Black Entertainment Television and the TV Food Network, as well as new services such as the CNN fn business news channel, the CNN-SI sports channel and the Sundance Channel for independent and foreign films. Primestar also added a package of nine regional all-sports channels from around the eastern half of the United States in addition to Home Team Sports and a package of 10 regional weather channels produced by MSNBC.

Capacity problems have kept cable system operators from adding new channels as fast as content providers can create them. The cable operators have been hampered by the heavy debt loads most major carriers have, which have caused new innovations and capacity upgrades continually to appear more slowly than the industry has promised.

Where local phone companies had been expected to pour into the video programming business, they have had technical problems of their own, leaving satellite operators as the emerging competition.

Local cable executives have maintained they are not yet seeing defections to satellite TV from cable. Primestar said it has 1.7 million customers nationwide. It is the second largest U.S. satellite TV provider, trailing DirecTV.

Pendleton said Primestar was able to create additional channel capacity by deleting parts of the digital signals that carry the programming. This process, known as digital compression, allows companies that run digital networks to deliver more programming over the same amount of satellite bandwidth.

Done properly, the deletion of some information will cause imperceptible differences in picture quality, often too small for an ordinary TV set to show. Analog-based cable systems such as those in Baltimore can't do digital compression.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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