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Can UHF and LPTV compete with DBS and MMDS on my VCR? Making sense of TV technology's alphabet soup

For many Americans, television still means broadcast television: over-the-air programs supplied by the three commercial networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), the federally funded Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), or the nation's 654 VHF (very high frequency) and 552 UHF (ultra high frequency) operating stations. From 1940 (when NBC broadcast America's first network television program) until the mid-'70s, that was essentially correct. A decade ago, however, two major developments in the distribution system began a shift that has had profound consequences:

VCRs. In 1975, Sony introduced the Betamax, a videocassette recorder (VCR) that allowed viewers to record programs off the air or play recorded tapes. Selling originally in the $1,300 range, VCRs are now available for less than $200. The result: Nearly 1 American home in 5 already has one, and estimates are that by 1990 the VCR ``penetration'' will reach 50 percent. In 1984, Americans bought more than 100 million blank videocassettes, probably using most of them to ``time shift'' programs for later viewing.

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What worries broadcasters, however, is not time-shifting. It's the growth of rentals and sales of videotaped programs by video shops. Dealing in everything from operas and Hollywood movies to self-help programs and pornography, this fledgling video-shop business posted an impressive $1.6 billion in revenues in 1984 -- nearly one-fifth of the advertising revenues ($8.2 billion) earned by the networks last year.

Cable. In 1976, Home Box Office persuaded viewers to begin paying for television -- by distributing movies directly to the home by means of a cable connecting the television set with a ``head-end'' distribution point. With that came the surge of growth of cable television, which also provided subscribers with clear reception and a choice of up to 120 channels. Cable, with basic monthly charges averaging $8.92 in 1984, now reaches more than 42 percent of the nation's homes and last year generated revenues of $7.5 billion.

Both cable and VCR, by significantly improving viewers' freedom of choice over what and when they watch, have substantially cut the networks' share of the prime-time audience. In November 1979, for example, the networks took 91 percent of that audience; by last November, that figure had fallen to 85 percent for broadcast-only homes -- and it was down to 68 percent for homes with cable.

Meanwhile, other new technologies have developed:

LPTV. The first low-power television (LPTV) station (a station with a broadcast radius of no more than about 15 miles) started in Bemidji, Minn., in 1981. Begun in an effort to ``demassify'' the mass media and encourage greater diversity through local programming, LPTV got a boost in 1983, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began licensing new stations by lottery. LPTV remains primarily a small-town and rural phenomenon: Of the more than 260 stations in operation in 1984, over three-quarters were in Alaska.

SMATV. Add an ``S'' (for satellite) to MATV (master-antenna television, through which a large apartment complex or institution connects all its TV sets to one antenna), and you create a building-size cable system fed by signals pulled down from a satellite. Having fought off legal challenges from conventional cable operators last year, SMATV seems set to make inroads into one of cable's most expensive-to-wire markets: dense urban areas.

MMDS. Otherwise known by the paradoxical term ``wireless cable,'' this mouthful of consonants stands for multichannel multipoint distribution service. Whereas a cable operator wires TV sets directly to a distributor (a technology that some critics liken to a great leap backward to the age of the telegraph), an MMDS operator sends out cable-like programming over a low-power microwave transmitter. Subscribers receive the signals through small roof-mounted antennas aimed, line-of-sight, at the transmitting tower. Like SMATV, MMDS has particular advantages for inner-city areas -- and typically it costs much less than cable to install. In 1983, the FCC allowed it to operate on unused frequencies formerly allocated for educational broadcasting -- much to the dismay of educators, who charge the FCC with commercializing a public-service asset.

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DBS. Drive through the nation's rural areas, and sooner or later you come upon a home with a large direct-broadcast satellite dish in the yard. Aimed at a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above Earth, the dish taps directly into TV programming, bypassing the middleman broadcaster or cable operator. A recent industry report predicts DBS sales of $1.5 billion this year, with 4.17 million home dishes installed by the end of the decade. Initial installation costs are in the $1,500 range. But you can pay as much as $16,000 -- for remote-controlled dishes so sophisticated that you can watch, for example, the networks shooting and reshooting successive ``takes'' of their correspondents' reports from overseas, as they assemble the evening news. Sources: Channels Magazine; National Cable Television Association; FCC; First Communications Group.

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