In recent years, the direct-broadcast satellite industry
has been credited with skimming the cream off cable's best-subscriber lists. In some
cases, cable can fight back by offering digital upgrades, expanded pay-per-view lineups
and multiplex premium-movie channels. But when it comes to targeting the mobile market,
DBS leaves cable in its dust.
Tens of millions of Americans travel the roads and
waterways each year in recreational vehicles, boats and trucks. For many, the only way to
ensure that they have regular access to their favorite cable channels is to buy a
Options range from portable DBS antennae packed in carrying
cases for setup at campsites, picnics and tailgate parties; to expensive mobile systems
that can track a satellite continuously while a vehicle is in motion.
"Obviously, you can't take cable with you,"
said Dick Burke, owner of RV Satellite Systems, a mobile-DBS dealership based in Anaheim,
While it's true that some RV parks, truck stops and
marinas have cable hookups, the channel lineups and picture quality are often not up to
par, according to Marvin Oakeson, a sales executive with MotoSat, which manufacturers DBS
antennae with automatic positioners designed especially for RVers.
And in many popular RV hangouts, such as Yellowstone
National Park and Yosemite National Park, there are no cable hookups at all, said Kathy
Thomson, director of sales operations for DirecTv Inc.
Without access to cable programming, travelers might be
limited to VCRs and broadcast television for video entertainment. But renting videotapes
on the road can be problematic for those who don't stay in one place for long. And
campers are often drawn to areas beyond the reach of a good selection of off-air channels.
Bill Greene, controller for Travel-Sat, which also markets
mobile-DBS systems, said the category represents a very big market. With the advent of
less expensive DBS products over the past few years, he added, the market has filtered
down to include medium-priced motor coaches.
When asked about the size of the mobile-DBS market, Thomson
replied, "The potential is enormous." She added that RV-owners are loyal and
avid DirecTv customers. At RV shows and campgrounds, she noted, many RVers show the
product to their friends.
Some RV- and boat-owners travel year-round and call their
vehicles home. So savvy marketers go where their potential customers are, attending RV
shows and boat shows and setting up shop right in campgrounds.
The prime marketing season for portable-DBS systems is
summer, when even part-time RVers and boaters are traveling again. Winegard Co. has
extended through October a promotion offering a free Dish Network receiver with the
purchase of any Winegard mobile system and one year's programming from EchoStar
Stefani Haden, director of marketing for FutureTrak
International Inc., which makes a weatherproof antenna for boats and yachts, said
there's a large, untapped market for the product. "People on boats didn't
always know about that option," she said.
In many cases, price isn't a major barrier for signing
up new DBS customers. Boaters have "huge disposable income," Haden said.
Barbara Sullivan, president of Denver-based BG Marketing
Inc., agreed. "So many boat-owners want to have all of the bells and whistles on
board," she said.
Burke said he enjoys serving RV customers because he's
never had a problem with a bad credit card or check, and the upper-middle-class customers
don't require financing.
And once those customers sign up for DBS service on their
boat, motor coach or truck, they're likely to make good residential-DBS customers,
too, if they're not already subscribers.
Sullivan said the best prospects for buying DBS systems for
boats probably already have dishes at home. She added that they might enjoy higher levels
of satisfaction with their DBS service if they don't have to leave it behind when
they spend time on their boats.
Some outsiders questioned the need for travelers to have
any television available -- let alone hundreds of channels -- while they're supposed
to be getting away from it all.
But even active travelers like to watch the news at night,
according to Oakeson. "And if you have bad weather, there's not a lot to do but
watch TV," he added.
Oakeson also said travelers like to watch The Weather
Channel to check on any upcoming storms in areas where they're heading or staying for
Thomson said off-air antennae help travelers to track
weather patterns more locally. Although national-broadcast-network packages are available
to subscribers beyond the reach of a good local signal, restrictions apply to travelers
just as they do to home-based dish-owners.
And there are some DBS services that travelers can't
access at all unless they can hook their DBS receivers up to land-based phone lines. DBS
subscribers cannot order pay-per-view movies or events directly from a remote control
without telephone hookups. They can call the DBS-service provider directly to order PPV,
but there's often a service charge in doing so, and some spending limits apply.
And since sports-blackout rules apply for DBS, companies
such as DirecTv cannot send season-ticket sports packages to systems that are disconnected
from their phone lines.
Since each digital-DBS box is individually addressable by
satellite, homeowners with single DBS receivers need not notify their providers when they
take that receiver on the road. If they have two or more receivers, however, and they
unplug one from the residential phone line, those subscribers must notify the DBS company
or run the risk of being billed for a second monthly subscription.
Residential-dish owners are generally charged a small
additional "mirror fee" for sending programming to a second box in the same
house if both are plugged into the same phone line.
Oakeson said more RVers would have second receivers in
their vehicles if they didn't have to pay full second-subscription fees