Clash of the TV Titans

Would you rather fight than switch? Here's your chance to answer.

In Lexington, door-to-door pollsters have been canvassing neighborhoods, looking for satellite dishes. If you have one, the pollsters will offer you 10 bucks to answer a series of questions about your service, and what it would take for you to switch back to cable.

Clearly, the satellite customer base must be growing enough to concern our local cable provider, Insight Communications. Does Insight, the only cable company in town, really have something to worry about?

An investigation indicates that the satellite companies are pulling out all the stops to get new customers. And cable is fighting back with a series of advertisements touting their superiority over dish systems.

There's the ad with the sweaty "satellite TV executive" taking questions on the chin from a Sally Jessy Raphael-type audience. Then there's the one with the operator at "consolidated amalgamated worldwide television" (or the like) taking a call from a disgruntled satellite customer. And the one with the woman who doesn't want to watch Madmen of Wrestling, but has to, because her husband has it on the other set.

The series of ads focuses on cost: the cost of installation of the systems, the cost of additional receivers (one is required for every set in the house, if you want to watch different programming on each set at the same time), and the cost of the dishes themselves.

Putting aside the fact that any reputable satellite dish retailer will have explained up front that multiple sets require multiple receivers, what IS the actual cost of putting in a dish?

Right now, if you have cable, just bring your cable bill to a participating Dish Network outlet, and they'll give you the dish, one receiver and installation for free, if you sign up for a year-long contract with a certain level of service. If you don't have cable, you pay for the receiver and dish, but get free installation via a rebate, also for signing up for one year of programming.

The cable ads are correct about the increased cost of connecting additional sets; additional receivers usually run about $99 each, according to Ray Bailey, Vice President of Dish Outlet here in Lexington. "Though installation is more expensive, the dish companies believe that, once you see the quality of their signal and programming, you won't ever go back to cable. "Bailey knows that many potential satellite customers are scared away by the fact that local channels can't be received on the satellite systems. But Bailey says, "We're actually pretty lucky in Lexington, because all of our commercial over-the-air stations are UHF, and their towers are located pretty close together (except Fox 56's tower in Danville). If you put a small UHF antenna on your TV, you can get pretty good reception for all stations."

So, best-case scenario, that's free dish, free installation, free receiver, possibly $99 for an additional receiver, and about $40 each for a top of the line UHF set-top antenna. If the special "free" offer doesn't apply, it's $89 more.

In comparison, what does it cost for cable installation? A call to Insight's customer service line revealed that basic installation is $24.95 for reactivating existing cable service to up to three television sets and $46.95 if it's a new cable installation. And right now, if you order a premium movie service at the time of installation, it's half-price.

There's no question that Insight's installation costs are cheaper, but what about the monthly cost of programming?

Well, for Insight's digital cable, with 75 video channels plus 35 music channels, you will pay $46.40 per month. Dish Network offers 103 video channels plus 50 music channels, for $39.99 a month. Each service allows you to add premium movie packages for an extra charge; for $10.95, you can add 10 channels of HBO to Insight's digital cable, and $11.99 will get you six HBOs on Dish Network.

So Insight would run about 5 bucks more per month for about 40 fewer channels.

But there are two important differences between the two services that bear discussion. First, Insight offers public interest programming that the dishes are not required to provide. Public access, Government Television 3, UKTV, Fayette County Schools and the newly activated Library Channel are unavailable on dishes. (Of course, depending on your point of view, that could be a good thing).

Second, Insight has the ability to provide high-speed cable modem access through its service, for about 30 bucks a month. At this point, Dish Network does not offer Internet access, though Ray Bailey says plans are in the works for wireless, two-way high speed Internet through the satellite some time in the late fall or early winter.

Dish Network competitor DirecTV already offers a form of Internet access, offering high-speed downloading of data, but the uploading must occur through a phone line.

Of course, Insight's digital upgrade isn't complete yet, though it shouldn't be long now.

What does the future hold for this ongoing competition? Ray Bailey says that about 20 percent of Central Kentucky television viewers are dish subscribers, and that number should only increase in the future. While that percentage represents some folks who live in communities a bit distant from Lexington proper, a drive around local neighborhoods shows them sprouting up everywhere.

And Bailey's phone is ringing off the hook.