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Coming soon to a screen near you: RCA/Thomson's digital television, offering crystal-clear pictures and CD-like sound through an 18-inch satellite dish.

The service, which offers 175 cable TV channels and costs $699 to $899, began last week in New York and will be available across the country by the end of the month.

RCA/Thomson Consumer Electronics, the U.S. consumer unit of French-based Thomson-CSF, has been gradually rolling out its Digital Satellite System -- first unveiled in December -- in segmented areas of the country. It has already shipped 200,000 units to electronics retailers and says demand has been better than expected.

The system, offered as an alternative to cable TV, consists of a small, 18-inch satellite dish -- the size of an extra-large pizza -- a digital receiver and a remote control. It does not require a special TV set.

RCA/Thomson and its two programming providers, DirecTV and United States Satellite Broadcasting Co., a unit of Hubbard Broadcasting, will launch a $100 million advertising program on Oct. 24.

One of the system's drawbacks is it cannot offer local network television to its subscribers, due to FCC regulations.

In areas where local TV networks are broadcast, customers can pay an additional $7 to $10 for an additional cable service or hook up their own antenna.

The system also suffers from several technical problems.

Sports fans will no doubt be disturbed by the system's difficulty in clearly reproducing fast-moving images on the screen.

Another drawback, for which there appears to be no quick solution, is severe weather can disrupt the signal enough to wipe out the picture entirely. The company's answer to that so far is to offer credit on the subscriber's bill.

RCA/Thomson says the system's programming is typically less expensive than the standard monthly cable bill, starting at $5.95 and ranging to $34.95. That varies across the country and no doubt will change if the telephone companies go full-fledged into the cable TV business.

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