Updated at 4:45 p.m. PDT to clarify that portable receivers are capable of receiving live program signals.
The marriage of satellite radio providers Sirius and XM has finally received the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission on Friday. Now we can all finally get the game we want.
For many prospective customers, a key sticking point was the different selections of sports programming offered exclusively by each provider. A few years back, I wanted to make a present of a Sirius subscription to a friend who spends a lot of time driving around Northern California, especially in places that don’t get AM/FM signals. After sampling XM and Sirius’ music selections, I knew that she would enjoy the Sirius offerings over the XM offerings. But XM broadcasts more games of the sports she enjoyed–just not all of them. There really wasn’t a clear winner. So, to keep from saddling her with the wrong or incomplete service, I opted against the gift. Basically, the lack of a comprehensive offering cost the industry a customer.
I suspect that this was a dilemma faced by many listeners who were in search of more than their local radio stations could offer. But the merger means that listeners will be able to choose from a menu to add programming a la carte. For subscribers, this is a big win in programming. You can also bet that the prospect of replacing existing receivers will irritate early adopters.
Critics, however, will tell you that the merger will result in a monopoly. While the elimination of immediate industry competition will create a de facto monopoly, satellite radio is not the only source of music, talk, or sports broadcasting available to consumers. People are getting their music from many sources today. Besides satellite radio, people are finding their favorite tunes on Internet radio, MP3 players, music-playing cell phones and even traditional terrestrial radio.
To tell the truth, I don’t listen to terrestrial radio, or traditional free radio, much anymore, unless there is a game I can’t get on television. Indeed, “free radio” offers one of the more exciting and attractive music options in the form of HD radio. Unfortunately, some four years after HD radio hit airwaves, consumers have not embraced the new format, which ultimately suffers in comparison with satellite radio because of its limited range. If I weren’t so pleased with Sirius’ music programming and the fact that it’s offered as part of my Dish subscription, I would probably spring for an HD receiver to plug into my A/V home receiver. But I keep waiting for an affordable A/V receiver to come on the market that has HD radio built in as part of the tuner. When that happens, expect home satellite subscriptions to wane a little.
(Disclosure: I listen to music-only Sirius at home via Dish Network and a complete subscription in my wife’s car. The only financial interest I have in either company comes in the form of monthly subscription bills.)
You might think that the satellite industry has the upper hand in broadcasting. But while we’re on the topic of things we’re waiting for, let’s look at some of the things the satellite industry can improve. While Sirius now touts portable units as being capable of receiving live signals, many users complain of spotty or poor reception while on the go. Also, while traffic and weather reports for a few metropolitan areas is great, satellite radio can’t provide the same content as local news radio stations, so it would be nice have a portable unit that also gets AM/FM radio stations.
As a prerequisite for FCC approval, the companies agreed to freeze subscription rates for three years. If they try to jack the prices on consumers, expect consumers to change the dial, especially with the wide variety of options that are available to consumers today.