one cliché is right most of the time: The common job for radio
in Germany, the creation of a bit of background noise, is TV’s job
in the US. Only at work and in the car is the good old "steam radio"
still in business. Radio programs in the States are significantly
better than in Germany: it is easy to find three "classic rock" stations
in the greater Jacksonville area of North Florida, as well as in Orlando,
the home of Disneyworld. Since America is the home of format radio,
expect to know the station’s record collection after three days –
although Pink Floyd’s "Time" is a classic, you might not want to hear
it three times a day...
Despite that, radio programs are
acceptable in the US. But the outlook for TV is somewhat murky.
First for technical reasons: Long distances in the country are difficult
to cover. Since there are so many different stations, it is not
possible to use narrow bandwidth antennas like it was commonly done
for many years in Germany. Instead, universal broadband yagis are
sold that cover FM radio, the upper VHF band (remember the lower
VHF band I does not exist in the US – they have devices like cordless
telephones on those frequencies instead!) and UHF in one. For $100
you can get an antenna from Radio Shack that promises 210 miles
reception (340 kilometers) in a flat area. For radio and UHF, Radio
Shack still promises 135 miles (216 kilometers). If you know a bit
about radio wave propagation, you can imagine what is left of the
picture after a distance that far over the horizon, which would
be at 60 kilometers.
However, in the city every station
has its own transmitter on top of their skyscraper, which does not
exactly help in deciding in what direction to point your antenna.
Plus, do not forget that the US also has to cope with the older
NTSC color system. NTSC reacts with strong color changes on signal
reflections, therefore it is also occasionally explained as "never
the same color".
Also, you do not get very many interesting
programs over the aerial. Only PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)
is commercial free and financed by donations from viewers and sponsors.
All the other free TV programs are interrupted frequently and lengthily
by commercials. German viewers with Telekom cable can get an idea
what US television is like by watching the "Tonight Show with Jay
Leno" on the "NBC Europe Superchannel" The preproduced commercial
breaks are filled in with advertisements for NBC’s other programs,
since American commercials would neither make sense nor probably
even be allowed in Germany. No wonder such a program can only be
used as background noise – it is not possible to enjoy it in the
peace and quiet of an armchair without being driven to distraction.
Also, theater-quality movies, frequently seen on German private
channels, are rare to see on free-to-air American television. When
it is to your advantage to save time and frustration from frequent
commercial interruptions, its probably better to rent the movie
from a local video store. Video stores flourish better in the US
than in Germany, and it is probably a good reason why the
"No sex please – we’re Blockbuster" family video store chain, which
failed in Germany, is the market leader in the US.
The alternative in the city is cable
television. Many cable companies have various offers starting from
$30 a month (50 DM), attracting customer’s attention. So one can
get a good 50 channels that offer a lot of junk and also a basic
delivery of programs like CNN, Cartoon Network, The Weather Channel
(very important in hurricane- and tornado-prone North America),
Discovery Channel and TLC (The Learning Channel, which belongs to
the same company as Discovery), and the nationwide TV networks.
Of course not commercial free. To make sure that the viewer does
not just skip them, at least one or two hints on the running program
are spread in between the commercials, seeming as if the program
was about to continue. Instead, they switch from the nationwide
commercials to the localized ones supplied by the cable company.
Even in cable some channels are coded,
and you need a set top box and Pay-TV card to get them on the screen.
Other stations like HBO (Home Box Office) will not be on the cable
at all if you do not pay per month or sometimes even per view. To
avoid your getting totally lost, one channel shows a program schedule
– US TV does not have anything like the European "Videotext". All
that remains from former plans for such a system is "close caption"
(CC) that provides subtitles for hearing impaired similar to German
Videotext page 150. To make sure the viewers dependent on this service
do not miss the really important parts of the program – the commercials!
– those get subtitles too. Have a look at this interesting dialogue
from a car commercial: "Slamm! Click! Vrooommm!!". You may even
recognize elements of regular German programming: BMW uses modified
parts of the "Space Night" introduction of Bayrischer Rundfunk in
one of their commercials. They probably would not dare to do such
plagiarism in Germany, but in the US one does not see programs like
Space Night on normal TV stations, since NASA has its own TV station!
But of course many German TV shows
are copied straight from American TV. The "Late Night Show" is run
by Conan O’Brian in the US, in Germany Thomas Gottschalk and Thomas
Koschwitz used to host it and passed it on to Harald Schmidt. Also
SAT 1’s "Wochenshow" with Ingolf Lück is a direct copy of a
US show, including the design of the show’s logo. Unfortunately
not yet arrived in Germany is a timesaving achievement on Hollywood’s
entertainment- and scandal-channel "E!": Once a week they compile
all the worst mishaps and funniest conversations of all the talk
shows in "Talk Soup", so that even those viewers who normally do
not have the time or the nerve for watching talk shows can also
have a laugh.
Technical quality of cable reception
is rather bad: CNN e.g. is carried so badly at "Cable One" in Jacksonville
that you need to know politicians and moderators by their face,
because the names on the screen are totally unreadable. The electronically
generated program guide with the next two hours of programming shows
up in a real "DX" quality: the lines are jittering just like how
long distance experts might know from DX conditions, and for hours
this channel completely disappears in the splatter from adjacent
channels. Of course this happens on all TV sets in the house. Actually
this does not really bother anyone since nobody really pays attention
to the schedules. Instead they flip up and down the channels in
a way that you might think someone’s playing "Donkey Kong" or "Super
Mario" on a Gameboy...
If you live in the country, you do
not even get this dubious luxury: there is no cable there. As an
alternative you may have one of three competing satellite Pay-TV
systems: Primestar for $28 a month, DirecTV with 40 digital channels
for $20 a month and Echostar with Dish-TV (please do not mix up
with Tele-Satellit’s "Dr. Dish-TV"!). Dish TV is not available on
the East coast because the satellite used is too westwards and not
able to cover the whole US. Do not forget the costs for the dish
and the receiver, which you may buy or rent for an additional $10
a month. The quality of those programs have already made it into
Bruce Springsteen’s song lyrics: "56 channels and nothing on" –
they are not any better or different than the cable channels. Free-TV
sat programs like the German programs on Astra satellite do not
exist in the States, not counting sat specialists tapping internal
To cope with American TV addicts
wanting a set in every room and people not able to sleep without
the tube still on, at first the sat systems did not use the trick
for using the same channel twice in horizontal and vertical polarization,
as it is done on European Astra. So you could easily parallel several
receivers and TV sets to one dish without a need for expensive Twin
LNCs, multiswitches and other complicated and expensive accessories.
By now at least for DirecTV, you need "Dual LNCs" if you want to
connect two receivers. And unlike with Eutelsat and Astra, satellite
radio is not widely known in the US.
And finally the important question:
How expensive are consumer electronic devices in the US compared
to Germany? Are they still cheaper or not?
For someone from Europe being in
the US on vacation, that is no topic: the different line voltage
and (with VCRs and TV sets) the different TV system would prevent
someone from having fun with the US model of their dream device.
Not to mention the problems at customs, where the officials are
just waiting to cash in on such "self imports". Also applying for
a guarantee would be a major problem. But if you are planning on
staying in the States for a while, you should know what is expecting
Japanese made equipment is at a similar
price level as in Germany, if the dollar would be up at 2 DM. At
the present lower exchange rate those are around 20% cheaper. Native
brands like Hewlett-Packard for computer accessories or Zenith for
TV sets and VCRs even show up at only 50% of corresponding equipment
in Germany. With PCs you only see slight differences in configuration:
US citizens accept less powerful CPUs -– the "Celeron" processors
that are disdained in Germany sell quite well in the US. Hi-Fi systems
do not look much different, although newer developments as Mini
Disc and audio CD recording are rarely seen in the stores, CD players
and compact cassette still rule the market. A noticeable difference:
Consumer shops like Circuit City contrary to similar German chains
like "Media Markt" only show a price limited spectrum of appliances:
the most expensive CD player or VCR is only double the price of
the cheapest one – if you want more, you have to go somewhere else.
It seems they do not have to draw the customer in by showing him
an expensive high-end device to buy an economy one. Americans only
get irrational – again – with TV sets: Even the cheap shops show
several oversize sets as rear projection systems. You will not see
features like 100 Hz display, as the American TV system operates
on 60 instead of 50 Hz where screen flickering is not such a problem
anymore: even the cheapest TV set looks calm and does not go on
your nerves with flickering – maybe another reason why the tube
is on all day...
Of course all TV sets are only able
to take US signals: 525 lines, 60 Hz, NTSC. Multinorm-TVs are completely
unknown and not for sale anywhere, not even a trace of 16:9 or other
technical finesses. Neither are multinorm VCRs available, and even
S-VHS VCRs are a rare species. No wonder American video shippers
have such problems of producing PAL copies. Only the high-end chain
Sound Advice could really cope with their name and supply some advice
on the subject what you could get to have a look at European video
tapes: they offered an Aiwa VCR with integrated digital TV norm
converter (first presented at German Funkausstellung 1995), that
also operates on both 110 and 230 volts without switching.
But you can not miss the new video
technology DVD (digital versatile disc): DVD players and software
are on sale everywhere – at prices rather high for American rates.
Also you should always look twice: Not only do American discs not
run on European players – this time not because of problems with
the TV system but by copyright protection intentionally introduced
by the film industry – DVDs produced for the US get a country code
1, and the ones produced for Europe get a country code 2 so only
those play in European players. Also many of the discs on sale seem
to be very well priced, but are actually one-way products: These
are so-called DIVX discs that can only be played with special equipment.
The players dial into a computing center via modem and register
the movie being started there. You now have to finish watching the
movie within the next 48 hours. Otherwise you are out of luck, since
the device will not play the movie anymore. If you want to see it
again, you have to call and pay for it a second time with your credit
card. Otherwise, the only use left for the disc is to put it under
your beer glass. The idea is to have a one-way alternative to video
tape rental: Buy it, watch it, trash it. Not very environmental.
But that is no surprise in a country, where you may get many gadgets,
but rarely something like a glass of water from the tap that can
be actually drunk or a warm bath that does not smell like a darkroom
or a public pool...