Satellite Firms Hope Digital Delights Industry Readies Marketing Blitz to Compete with Cable; Clearer Pictures as Selling Point
Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Get ready for a blitz of information about the dazzling new features your TV should deliver, but almost certainly doesn't.
At least not if your TV programs arrive via cable or traditional broadcast.
Satellite TV companies are ready to deliver digital television, and they're readying a fall marketing blitz to sing its praises and lure new customers to their small but growing ranks. Rather than compete with cable TV on price, satellite companies are selling the benefits of digital television: better pictures, clearer sound, huge channel capacity, and interactive features, such as online programming guides and, eventually, shopping. But despite the flashy features, evidence suggests most Americans will flick the digital switch at a more leisurely pace. Cable and broadcast TV - the television most people watch - are at least two years away from a major roll-out for digital. And the satellite-TV companies, while growing fast, have seen growth rates slacken. Consumers want the service, say officials, but the industry has been throwing the wrong marketing pitch. "There was a major price war that occurred this past year and sometimes that hurts an industry," says Harry Thibedeau, of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association in Alexandria, Va. "The true value of satellite television was being lost in the consumer's mind." With digital, television is making a leap similar to the music industry's jump from records to compact discs. A computer grabs the picture and sound and breaks them down into bits of data. This digital information is then transmitted to your home - via satellite, cable, or broadcast - and reassembled for your TV. The technology is flexible, so it can create one channel with super-sharp pictures and sound or several channels with lower video and audio quality. The picture is less clear when it comes to consumer demand, and broadcasters, for one, have been slow to tune in. Likewise the cable industry, just beginning to roll out its digital systems, doesn't appear keen to dramatically improve quality. That leaves satellite TV companies, which already deliver higher-quality video and sound, as the test case. "People, once they get into it, really like it," says Denny Wilkinson, senior vice president of marketing and programming at Primestar Partners, the nation's No. 2 satellite TV company. The challenge, he says, is getting people to try it. The three-year-old industry is so new that consumers know little about it. And initial installation and equipment can cost hundreds of dollars. Although satellite TV started with a bang, growing to more than 5.3 million customers in three years, growth rates have slowed this year. "People thought we could double or triple the audience," Mr. Wilkinson says. "We don't have the infrastructure to do those type of things. …