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TV Wars

Not so long ago, people were thrilled if their couch-size television consoles picked up four stations. And in black and white, no less.

Today, two technologies are vying for the chance to bring Utahns a dizzying array of viewing options: hundreds of digital-quality channels, including sports, news, movies, history, health, music and family. And network TV. And special pay-per-view events. And the list goes on and on.

Cable television, long the industry's Goliath, has awakened to find itself in the midst of a spirited market-share battle with upstart digital satellite companies. The result? An advertising blitz that may raise more questions in the minds of would-be subscribers than it answers.

Digital satellite companies say they offer more digital channels for less money than digital cable. Digital cable counterpunches, saying satellite companies force subscribers to pay for local channels and equipment fees. Each advertises it delivers the biggest bang for consumers' bucks — more channels, less hassle, greater reliability.

An apples-to-apples comparison reveals that, depending on the consumer's preferences, each may be right.

In Utah, three companies have emerged in the lead pack of multi-channel providers: AT&T Broadband, DirecTV and the Dish Network.

"I think you'll find that we are really very competitive and very comparable in many ways," said Dennis Narciso, AT&T Broadband's director of marketing for the Salt Lake region. "Both technologies offer advantages and products that consumers might find appealing."

Narciso admits the cable industry may be playing a bit of catch-up, trying to re-convert customers to cable's virtues after digital satellite's aggressive attack.

"The cable industry for so long had very little competition," he said. "When it came along in the form of direct satellite, there was what I might call a sense of disbelief that they could be competitive. There was probably a period of denial on cable's part."

In the midst of that denial, the competition — DirecTV and Dish Network — emerged fresh-faced, with improved technology and federal approval to carry local television stations. No longer weighed down by the 20-foot satellite dishes of the past, dish providers are leaner, meaner and hungry for subscribers.

"Dish Network views itself as the value player in the marketplace," said Scott Landers, Dish Network director of direct marketing. "We will always try to maintain the best value in the marketplace, meaning the most channels at the lowest prices."

Feeling the heat, AT&T Broadband launched a new campaign to woo back customers. The "Dish Out" program gives dish owners $200 in programming credits in exchange for their old satellite dishes and set-top boxes. The program originated in Salt Lake City, but it has since spread to other AT&T markets.

"On a percentage basis, we've had the highest response of any AT&T market so far," company spokeswoman Barbara Shelley said. "It's a great program, and people are coming back."

But both Landers and DirecTV spokeswoman Gina Magee said savvy consumers will follow the money — a trail both say will lead straight to digital satellite.

"AT&T has been raising their rates nationwide," Landers said. "And we've learned that when consumers realize they have a choice, they switch. So for us, it's just a matter of getting the word out.

"We find a lot of resistance from cable companies, challenging us on the claims we make. They don't want to face any competition. But we just want consumers to know that they have a choice and an alternative to constant rate hikes."

For a comparable price, both satellite companies' most popular packages offer more than 100 all-digital video channels, digital audio channels and pay-per-view selections. To subscribe, consumers must have space to install the dish and a clear southern sightline to receive the signal. Most package prices also require a one-year contract and valid major credit card.

Along with competitive pricing, dish promoters point to their all-digital packages as an advantage over digital cable, which transmits a combination of digital and analog channels. But Narciso said that blend may actually appeal to some consumers, because the analog portion of AT&T's package may be received by multiple television sets without having to pay for additional set-top boxes. (To receive the digital portion, subscribers must rent additional boxes.) Digital satellite subscribers must purchase separate boxes for each set.

Narciso also disputed digital satellite's claim that it is more affordable than cable or that AT&T is itching to raise rates.

"We have not raised digital prices in two years," he said. "The people with our preferred packages have not had their rates affected in the same way the dish companies have been affected."

Instead, Narciso said it is the dish providers who are demanding more from their customers: a long-term commitment, a major credit card, extra fees to add local programming and set-top boxes, sightline restrictions, equipment installation.

Landers and Magee admit there are additional costs to purchase and install the dish, which may total hundreds of dollars. But both said their companies regularly offer promotions that either waive fees or reimburse subscribers for installation and equipment.

In the end, and despite the banter, the competitors agree consumers should shop around and pick the plan that best suits their needs, and their pocketbooks.

Professional sports aficionados may want to check out DirecTV's specialized sports packages. Fans of emerging "interactive TV" may want to take a look at Dish Network's technology, which promises to give subscribers the ability to pause, fast-forward and rewind live TV. And for the true techno-geek, AT&T Broadband anticipates a not-too-distant future when consumers may be able to bundle their long-distance and local phone service with high-speed Internet access, digital cable and interactive TV at discounted prices.