It Seems To Me

207 Channels

My 18-inch dish is cute, but she doesn’t have much class.

Wanting to share the American experience, I have just acquired a TV satellite dish. I am now prepared to report on my venture into this brave new world that has so many channels.

You have probably seen ads telling of the marvels we can bring into our homes by acquiring a dish free or, in the ad to which I responded, for $100. (All prices in this world end in 95 cents, so this price was actually $99.95, but for convenience I am going to round everything off.) You and I were not born yesterday, and we know that no one is going to give us such a valuable and sophisticated product so cheaply. We have read the fine print and know that we get the dish at such a low price only if we subscribe to the service providing the content for one year at $30 a month. Moreover, since this is a new and mysterious gadget, it is prudent to get a three-year repair service contract costing $120, and the thing needs to be delivered, which is another $30. And so far we haven’t counted the cost of installation. That is “basically” $200, but in my special case, for reasons that may not be so special, the installation cost was $350. Not surprisingly, everything is not going to work just right the first time, and though you are well covered by warranties you are going to spend many hours on the telephone while “our entertainment providers are serving other customers.” Valuing my time at the minimum wage, I calculate my investment of hours in getting started at $100. So I now have a fixed cost, excluding the cost of content, of $700.

In order to get started I had to sign up for a package of content costing $30 a month. That, however, was a minimum package, and there were many other more expensive options. In fact, to get fairly representative coverage, but with little sports coverage, I soon found myself up to about $80 a month. Amortizing my fixed costs over 36 months, the whole thing was coming to about $100 a month. Is that a lot or a little? About 5 million families now think the satellite dish is worthwhile, and the number is growing. A larger number are paying nearly that much a month for cable, with fewer channels than are available on satellite. There are great economies of scale. For a household of five people, $100 a month is $20 per capita.

What do we get for this? That is hard to tell. The system provides minimum guidance to what can be seen. One can scroll through a guide on the screen that tells what is showing on each channel, but the information given is minimal. The names of movies are shown, but not what they are about, who is in them, when they were produced, or any indication of their quality such as one would get in a newspaper listing. One click on the name of any currently running movie will bring it up on the screen, but without any additional information except for its rating (G, PG, etc.). Unless one is exceedingly well informed about movies, or quite indifferent, one can surf around for quite a while and only reach a movie one wants to watch after it has already begun. These problems can be somewhat eased by a subscription to the special satellite edition of TV Guide, but that is also an enormous maze of options.

A fter long and tedious research I am able to report on the content of the 207 channels available with the packages I have, or at least what was available during prime time in one evening.

Ninety-nine of these channels provided no content to subscribers. That included 28 blank channels, 25 channels containing advertising for the system or schedules of coming events, eight channels of broadcast stations generally available free without a satellite dish but requiring payment with the satellite dish, and seven channels duplicating what was being shown on other channels. Also there were 31 channels airing music without any picture. These channels were very finely classified–1970s hits, 1980s hits, several varieties of rock, several varieties of country, and so on. I consider that to be essentially similar to what can be obtained on the radio in most places.

Of the remaining 108 channels that had some content, 56 were showing movies, 45 for free, and 11 for pay. The fee for the pay movies was low, $3 if your satellite dish was connected to your phone line; otherwise $8. A quick scroll through the movies suggests that their quality is about what you would find in your local theaters on any given day–many awful, some fair, and a few good. That is no surprise, because almost all the movies have been in your local theater. The pay movies were no better than the free movies, only somewhat newer. A person who wants to stay home to see a movie on any night, or even on every night, should find something amusing. For oldies like me the most intriguing channel is Turner Classic Movies. One morning I came across a 1927 movie called Love, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. It was really Anna Karenina! But even I don’t want to watch those old movies for more than a few minutes.

The 16 channels devoted to sports, three of them for pay, were a surprise to me. I hadn’t expected so much space to be devoted to rugby (two channels), fishing, beach volleyball, stock-car racing, and ballooning, but I suppose there are those who love these activities. More access to standard events is available in deluxe packages beyond what I paid for.

Eleven news channels all have pretty much the same news. I generously classify nine channels as “education,” including two channels of C-SPAN, the Discovery Channel, a health channel, and a few others. Then there is a smattering of other things–shopping, food, housekeeping, cartoons, religion, and so on. One, Comedy Central, carries a new program, Win Ben Stein’s Money, for which I confess a special interest. One channel described in the brochure as “tasteful adult programming for mature audiences” I can vouch for as being very clean. All the girls look as if they just stepped out of the shower.

The technology of satellite TV–one 18-inch dish on the deck of my apartment receiving 207 channels from something flying in space thousands of miles away–is wonderful. The programming is less wonderful. But still, I can’t complain about what is there. I do, however, wonder about what is not there. When there are so many channels available, why is so little space devoted to education and art? My own little corner of the world, policy wonking, is an example. Washington think tanks long to get their programs on C-SPAN, but C-SPAN has space for only a few of them. Another channel devoted to such talk could well interest as many people as want to see a 1928 movie starring Conrad Nagel, and would not hurt them. And that only scratches the surface of possible educational programming. On the arts side, there are videotapes of great performances of great operas. Could they take the place of one of the 56 channels of movies? I recently acquired a wonderful videotape of ballet with Suzanne Farrell and Baryshnikov (produced, incidentally, with support from the much-maligned National Endowment for the Arts). I can imagine a channel devoted to such productions. My economist friends will certainly tell me that if such programming would pay off it would be done. But there is more to life than economics.

These last musings raise in my mind another question, a long way from the cute 18-inch dish on my deck. Many estimable people are devoting themselves to ridding our popular culture of obscenity, sex, and violence. Who is devoting himself to enriching our popular culture with high art?

POSTSCRIPT: Two more weeks with my cute TV satellite dish have increased my appreciation of it. I have learned to find my way around better, although that is still a problem and I think that a technology that can deliver so much information should be able to provide better guidance on the screen and not require reference to a printed magazine. I have found that when the incoming music is routed through my stereo, I get excellent sound. Just accidentally, while surfing and without any prior notice, I came upon a broadcast of Don Giovanni that was very good. I assume that the whole thing was being broadcast, although I came in at the beginning of the last act. There were no pictures. And I have finally sat through a whole movie. It was a 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, with Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Raymond Massey, David Niven, Madeleine Carroll, and Mary Astor. They don’t make casts like that any more. I remain of the opinion, however, that the content is far short of the potentialities of the technology.