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TV viewers find new ways to stay tuned

As Time Warner Cable dispute drags on, customers look to fiber optics, satellite dishes for Channels 4 and 23.

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Diane Czekalski was thinking about switching anyway.

Her cable bill was up to $149; the high-speed Internet wasn't that speedy; and one important channel was missing.

So when she saw Verizon's booth on Sheridan Drive, she pulled over. She signed up for "FiOS" service on the spot and got her mother on board as well.

"When they took Channel 4 off, that was like the final straw," the Amherst woman said.

The contract dispute that has taken Channels 4 and 23 off Time Warner Cable has set off a consumer blitz to get the channel by other means. Channel 4, the local CBS affiliate, carries most Buffalo Bills games, as well as such popular shows as the three "CSI" series.

As a result, people are plugging into the latest fiber optics, getting satellite dishes bolted to their roof and dusting off "rabbit ear" antennas reminiscent of black-and-white television days.

Switching means facing a welter of trade-offs.

Satellite services have the lowest entry prices for TV, but they don't offer money-saving bundles of telephone and Internet.

Verizon's new FiOS does have all-in-one service, but is not yet available in most of the region.

For some people, making a switch can save money -- especially now that competing pay-TV services are rolling out lucrative promotions.

Czekalski, for example, expects to cut her monthly bill for TV, phone and Internet by about $30, after trading her cable box for a FiOS line. Plus she gets a free month of HBO and Cinemax.

And the bill for her mother, who doesn't use a computer, will come down to $70 for television and phone service, from about $115.

"It's going to be cheaper for her, too," Czekalski said.

With its local subscriber base of 330,000 homes, Time Warner is the region's dominant pay-TV provider, and switching can be a hassle. Many subscribers now get their phone and Internet service, as well as television, from cable.

"People don't want to switch two or three services," said Bruce Leichtman, an industry analyst in New Hampshire.

But the Bills are a powerful people magnet -- especially now that they're riding a hot, 5-1 winning streak.

Cable competitors who carry CBS have been handed a gift like the errant pass that Bills defender Kawika Mitchell intercepted last Sunday in a pivotal point of the game.

"It's the Bills," Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said about a surge of consumers moving to FiOS. The phone company's fiber-optic service pipes phone and Internet, as well as television, with an introductory offer of $99 a month locked in by a one-year contract.

Verizon has gone so far as to hand out FiOS brochures to Time Warner customers while they stood in line for one of the free antennas that the cable company is handing out.

But the phone company can get only so much mileage out of Time Warner's problems. In Erie County, its new television service is available to only 60,000 households in parts of the towns of Amherst, Hamburg, Orchard Park and Tonawanda. Verizon said it will make television available to 100,000 homes by year's end, which would be roughly one-fifth of the Buffalo-area market.

The satellite industry, meanwhile, can put its dish antennas practically anywhere. Long nipping at the heels of cable, providers are now boosting their come-ons in hopes of taking a bigger bite.

"They have never thrown more money at people," said Karl Schmelz, marketing director for Intertech Digital Entertainment, an installer for Dish Network.

The satellite company's promotional offers are worth up to $500 in service credits and temporary access to premium-tier stations, he said.

Jeanita Ruda of Machias is enjoying watching Cinemax for a penny a month as a new customer of Dish Network.

"I don't look to FiOS getting down here anytime soon," she said.

Rural areas don't have as many pay-TV choices, but Ruda's in no hurry to switch. She signed a two-year contract locking in Dish at $44.99 a month, for 200 channels. The price, less than she paid for cable at her previous home in Lancaster, covers two TV sets. She said DirecTV had a similar offer for $10 more.

"All my kids were down here to watch the game," Ruda said contentedly.

How many people are switching?

Numbers are hard to come by. Time Warner says its subscriber base has taken only an "incremental" hit, while competitors say that they are signing up record numbers of new accounts.

But according to many reports, thousands of cable customers are tinkering at the back of their sets so they can pull Channel 4 out of the airwaves for free.

"I did it myself," Robin Wolfgang said.

As the local spokeswoman for Time Warner, she said she doesn't have any special technological know-how. At first she pointed the tips of the antenna down toward the floor instead of up at the ceiling.

But she found the "in from antenna" socket on her set, plugged in the antenna, and watched Trent Edwards and the Bills roll over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, in high-definition.

"We've handed out 40,000 of these," she said of the low-tech antennas.

The solution has the advantage of being low-cost as well as low-tech. Sandra Miller got one antenna free from Time Warner and picked up another cheaply at a dollar store.

"They don't work so good -- it's really blurry reception," the Cheektowaga resident said.

Still, she's sticking with her cable service, supplemented by antenna signals, to avoid having to switch providers. She gets cable on three TV sets and other services for a monthly bill of $145.

"The price is OK, and I like the fact that Internet is bundled in with cable," she said.

She checked out satellite but ran into a problem right off. If she and her boyfriend decide to move before a year is up, they would be stuck paying either of the major providers a cancellation fee. Time Warner doesn't have a break-up fee.

Verizon also charges a break-up fee for ending FiOS service before the contract is up, Bonomo said.

If the cable dispute were to drag on until Feb. 17, when over-the-air signals change from analog to digital, some rabbit-ears users would need to get a converter.

Prices begin at about $40, the amount available in a coupon from the Federal Communications Commission, available at www.dtv2009.gov.

But experts doubt that the dispute will last that long. November brings ratings sweeps and big election audiences, cranking up the pressure for a settlement, Leichtman said.

Finally, there's the option of going out to see the game. Miller likes to go to a restaurant where she can watch the Bills on one screen while her boyfriend tunes into another contest.

Evidence indicates that plenty of Bills fans are solving their reception problem by watching someone else's television.

At Striker's in West Seneca, a crowd of about 100 boisterous people watched the game on one of the bowling alley's nine screens last Sunday, manager Michael Faliero said. Two weeks earlier -- before his FiOS line was installed and the screens didn't show the Bills -- the atmosphere was very different.

"We had a barmaid, a waiter, and me," he said.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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