A consumer guide to premium cable | SummitDaily.com

A consumer guide to premium cable

Joanne Ostrow
denver post television critic

There’s no room in the budget for duds.

Suppose you gas up the car, drive to a movie theater, buy a vat of popcorn, pay for a babysitter, fork over $70 for the whole evening and don’t absolutely love the movie?

Your cable provider loves to say the local cineplex is an expensive night out; TV is a better-priced option.

But look at that cable bill. And if you shell out $20 a month or more for cable channels that rerun movies you’ve already seen (and others you wouldn’t touch), you feel cheated. Same with satellite ” and the convoluted pricing plans are a headache.

And new technologies have led to more options, the Netflix, Xbox and TiVo folks, for example, all will remind you they have thousands of titles available in the comfort of your living room. But they don’t come cheap.

Sorting out TV’s premium options isn’t easy. For consumers, it all comes down to deciding how much you can afford, familiarizing yourself with the offerings and matching the budget to your taste in viewing.

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But the time to re-evaluate is at hand. Entertainment expenses are under scrutiny as consumers tighten budgets.

“During challenging economic times, “One of the last things people give up is home video entertainment. TV is the center of the American household, has been for years and will be for years to come,” according to Ira Bahr, chief marketing officer for Dish Network.

How to justify HBO? If you watched “Taking Chance” or “Generation Kill,” you know the emotional power of a superlative documentary or fact-based miniseries is worth the investment.

But where to draw the line? Perhaps you can live without HBO’s heady projects like “In Treatment.”

Financially, and depending on your tastes, would you do better with Netflix? The online movie-rental service has 100,000 DVD titles with 12,000 titles on demand, and partnerships with XBox 360 and TiVo to stream movies and TV. Of course Netflix is strictly a movie/TV rental service ” no news, weather or sports.

“We encourage people to subscribe to us for movies and TV, not to displace other services,” said Netflix’s Steve Swasey.

Consumers face tough choices during an economic downturn. And they are dizzying.

A recent survey found consumers surprisingly unattached to premium cable channels, although 61 percent said they consider basic cable an “untouchable” necessity.

So, how many minutes of “Flight of the Conchords” do you have to watch in order to justify your premium cable subscription? Herewith, a consumer guide.

The most popular basic channels have shows that suit particular groups, say, women, children and wrestling fans, and consumers generally find them worth the money. The most-watched networks on the “basic” tier are TNT (“The Closer”), USA (“WWE Raw,” “NCIS,” “Monk”), Nickelodeon (“SpongeBob SquarePants”) and Disney (“Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Hannah Montana”).

Two other nonpremium channels have risen in stature tremendously in recent years, upping basic cable’s value. AMC and FX are tops when it comes to original, gripping series of high quality, without the extra price tag. Yes, you have to endure commercial interruption, but DVRs make that easy to avoid.

AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and FX’s “Damages” and “Rescue Me” are on par with any series in the premium lineup.

For Comcast customers, these channels are grouped in the “digital starter” package, which includes the On Demand feature, providing all previous episodes anytime. The “digital starter” level is $55.99 a month.

Comcast won’t divulge the percentage of subscribers cutting back on premium service in recent months. But anecdotal evidence suggests more people are finding ways to trim their cable bills. Whether watching at a friends’ house or renting earlier seasons for a marathon catch-up session, fans are finding cheaper alternatives.

Still, the way Comcast sees it, “cable TV continues to be one of the best values for consumers’ entertainment dollars.” An entire month of cable is about a third of the cost for a family of four to attend a professional sports event or live stage show, Comcast notes. Tough to argue, when one pay-per-view movie via Comcast On Demand costs $5.

For years, there was no contest. HBO was the powerhouse, home to “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire,” “Angels in America.” Then the network hit a rough patch post-“Sopranos.” Currently “Flight of the Conchords,” “Entourage,” “True Blood” and “Big Love” are smaller- scale hits. The upcoming “Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency” is a charmer, and Will Ferrell’s stage show, “You’re Welcome America,” a George W. Bush parody, could score for the network. But the battle is more evenly matched now.

Showtime is a contender in the series game with “The United States of Tara” and “Nurse Jackie” joining “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “Californication” and others. Raunchier than over-the- air TV but more fulfilling, too, these premium channels serve a smart niche. Newly relevant Showtime costs $7.99 a month for six months, then goes to $9.99 a month for Comcast customers.

However, for documentaries, specials and original movies/minis, HBO still reigns. For Comcast customers, HBO costs $11.99 a month for six months, then jumps to $19.99 per month. The next promising HBO series, “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” premiering March 29, is directed by Anthony Minghella and based on the Alexander McCall Smith novels. Charming and less profane than the usual premium fare, it’s worth the money, especially if you watch HBO for movies, as well (available on demand with your subscription).

There is lots of filler (“Sex Games Cancun”), and some titles that feel like they’ve been on the roster for ages (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). But often Cinemax has just enough respectable films to fill a Friday night when there’s nothing on TV. Think of it as a fallback option.

Mainstream fare is the focus here. New original series like “Crash,” “Head Case” and the upcoming “Party Down” suggest the network is on its way to a higher profile. However, there’s been no breakout hit so far. That profile remains an aspiration. Are nights at home with Starz Cinema expendable? They deliver art- house films and hot titles. On Comcast, for example, Starz costs $9.99 a month for six months, then jumps to $19.99 a month.

Is “Father of the Bride” playing on Encore unto eternity, or does it just seem that way? There seem to be younger-skewing choices (“Rata- touille”) and lots of second-rate titles (“Volcano,” “Superbad”). For cost-conscious subscribers, it may be less expensive than the movie theater, but quality is an issue. Encore and Cinemax can be added for $19.99 a month, Comcast says, but usually they’re bundled into a package, like the “preferred” plan for $72.94 a month, which gives viewers 150 channels plus On Demand.

For proprietary reasons, Netflix doesn’t divulge how many customers it has at each pricing level. But the plans allowing two and three DVDs out at a time are the most popular, according to spokesman Steve Swasey. That’s $13.99 for two titles at a time; $16.99 for three at a time, which includes an unlimited number of DVD rentals each month and unlimited streaming to TV, PC, XBox 360 gold, Blu-ray or TiVo.

“There’s no greater value anywhere,” Swasey claims. The service offers unlimited rentals for as low as $8.99 a month.

The deciding factor is movies, but “20 percent of what we ship is a TV title,” Swasey said.

On-demand streaming of entertainment, downloading directly to your cell, laptop or PC is the wave of the future. Streaming is growing in popularity, whether old TV shows or recent movies. Netflix predicts the DVD rental side of its business will continue growing for at least five years, then peak.

The satellite wars continue, and it can take some intensive work to come up with the pricing plan that suits your needs and budget.

Englewood-based Dish Network is $9.99 for six months, then $35 a month or higher, depending on premium packages. HBO and Starz are free for three months, along with a dozen other premium/movie networks, then $22. HD is free for six months, then $10 a month, along with free installation and DVR.

Another promo: “Pay with a credit card, and get Cinemax for a penny for a year,” Dish Network’s Behr said.

Packages with local channels can be added for $5 a month if you don’t have HD (if you do, local channels are included). Dish Network offers many international channels (Urdu!) plus regional and international sports networks.

“We’re the only pay-TV provider to offer one movie per month in 1080p quality (super HD) through video on demand,” according to Dish Network spokesman Parker C. McConachie. Recently, the service offered “Dark Knight” and the latest “Mummy.”

DirecTV boasts “the most HD channels, period.” For $35 a month, you get 150 channels for one year, with HBO, Starz and Showtime free for three months. It offers college sports, fly-fishing and NBA TV. And, for the third year in a row, DirecTV has bold plans for two-day coverage of SXSW Live, March 20-21, on The 101 Network.