Funny, I don't remember buying a raffle ticket. That was my
reaction to the news that I was to become the proud owner of a
DirecTV satellite dish. My assignment the week after
Thanksgiving was to spend five days gorging myself on the
offerings of the 75 sports channels the dish pulls down and to
write about the experience. A piece of cake, right?
Suggestion to my editor: The next time you do me this kind
of favor, throw in a few bucks for flowers and/or marriage
I recognized DirecTV as the service hawked in television
commercials by that mildly annoying man who plays Frank Fontana
on Murphy Brown. In one of the ads the pitchman--his real name
is Joe Regalbuto--diagrams a football play on a big board while
enthusing, "I've always wanted to do this." As I spent the week
spot-welded to my sofa, the 39-button DirecTV remote cradled in
my palm, and flitted from NHL to NBA to NFL games, I had the
same thought: I've always wanted to do this.
I am not alone. DirecTV has sold more than 1.1 million dishes
since they became available nationwide 13 months ago. It works
like this: First you drop at least $750 to buy your dish and
decoder box and have them professionally installed. Then you
decide what programming package you want and, most important,
what games you can't live without. The NBA League Pass, which
gives you access to up to 800 regular-season games, costs $149.
NHL Center Ice, which gives you more than 500 games (but, again,
no playoffs), goes for $119. The company's most wretchedly
excessive offering is the NFL Sunday Ticket: $139 for close to
200 out-of-market games. (On Dec. 3, I risked a
repetitive-motion injury to my right thumb by jumping among 13
NFL games.) Similar packages are available for college hoops and
football; a full-season Major League Baseball package will be
offered in the spring.
This assignment appealed to my love of both sports and family.
During football season, you see, I am on the road three weeks
out of four, often from Wednesday through Monday. Working at
home, I could spend quality time with my wife and daughter. I
could cut the lawn. I could seal the deck before the rainy season.
Physical labor, I soon discovered, was out of the question. The
presence of the dish on the roof, coupled with my marching
orders, resulted in a kind of satellite-induced torpor that made
even simple tasks difficult. After several days parked on my
posterior in the line of duty, I noticed that my hygiene had
begun to suffer, to say nothing of my relations with the women
in my life.
I spent the daylight hours of last Saturday watching eight
college basketball games--as a prelude to the seven NHL and eight
NBA games I would monitor that night. Even though I was around
the house, it was pretty much a lost weekend, familywise. As she
left for the health club at 9 a.m., my wife, Laura, bid me the
following adieu: "Later, loser."
Sunday's "workday" began at 8:30 a.m. with a variety pack of
coaches' shows and ended 13 games later. On Monday I began the
task of patching things up with Laura.
By then, six days--and roughly 6,000 noxious Fred Edelstein plugs
for his Pro Football Insider--had passed since the white CoitCom
pickup truck pulled up to our simple stucco home in northern
"I am Bulmaro," said the stocky man who emerged from the van.
"Call me Bull."
After puttering around our den, Bull wanted to know if he should
run the cable to the roof through the window or drill a hole in
the wall. "Through the window," said Laura immediately. "This is
a temporary arrangement."
The concept of a satellite dish on the premises disturbed her.
Some background on Laura: She is, like me, a journalist. She
has, unlike me, taken poetry workshops. It was her idea to name
our daughter Willa, after the novelist Willa Cather. Her
philosophy on television: Time spent in front of the tube is
time that could be spent reading. I attribute it to the
complexity of her character, rather than to hypocrisy, that on
Thursday nights when Friends comes on you cannot pry her from
Laura's problem with my new toy was this: A dish on one's
property fairly shrieks, Trailer park! The fact that the DirecTV
dish is 18 inches in diameter and invisible from the street
failed to sway her. "It's not that," she huffed. "It's the fact
that it's there."
I went up on the roof to hang with Bull, someone who was excited
about DirecTV, someone who was on board with the project. I'd
never been on my roof before. Noticing that I was peering into
my neighbors' windows, Bull told me how, during a recent job in
San Francisco, he'd been walking on someone's roof when he
stumbled upon a woman "taking a sun shower," in his words. "She
had on nothing."
Bull averages two installations a day, I learned after eliciting
from him a physical description of the sunbather. Not too long
ago he put a dish on former San Francisco 49er coach (and now
DirecTV spokesman) Bill Walsh's house. As we talked, Bull read a
meter that measured the strength of the satellite's signal.
"Between 75 and 80 is good," he said. "The highest I've ever
gotten was an 82. You're a 79."
How strong was Bill Walsh's signal? "He was a 78," said Bull.
I found this knowledge to be deeply satisfying.
My immersion in the DirecTV universe did not officially begin
until the next morning, but I thought it would be wise to
subject myself to a sort of freshman orientation. After dinner I
clicked on the set.
I skimmed past several hoops and hockey games and stopped at
NewSport Talk. A man with defiantly garish suspenders--I
discovered that obnoxious braces are host Chet Coppock's
sartorial trademark--was interviewing Richard Sandomir, The New
York Times sports media critic. They were discussing the Arts &
Entertainment Network's recent Three Stooges retrospective.
"I loved it," Sandomir was saying. "You saw when Moe started
combing his hair forward. You saw Curly when he actually had
hair. You saw how valuable Shemp was as the utility Stooge."
I double-checked the channel to make sure I was on the right
floor. It helps to think of DirecTV as a department store that
starts on the first floor: Channels 100 to 199 are where you go
for pay-per-view movies, 200 to 299 for news and miscellaneous
programming (such as round-table discussions on the Stooges).
The 300 level is where the sporting events live. It is the candy
store, and you are the kid.
I loitered around the candy store for a few more minutes, then
hit the lights. The green OFF/ON button of the decoder box
stared eerily back at me in the darkness, the sullen eye of an
alien I had foolishly invited into my home.
Actual live games don't start till 4:30 p.m., Pacific time.
Until then, the channels pulled down by the dish offer, among
other things, a stupefying array of fringe sports. Over the next
few days I will come to know the difference between dressage and
puissance. I will wonder why, after soccer players in Europe and
South America score, they run away from their teammates, who are
trying to congratulate them. I will become frustrated by the
fact that you can't see the ball in a televised squash match. I
will wince for bull riders stomped during the rodeo, for fish
hooked during fishing shows and for audience members who must
endure the banalities of that bottom-feeder of sports programs,
the coach's show. (Note to Danny Ford: Start enunciating, or
Did I mention waterskiing? Between periods of a rerun of last
night's New York Islander game, I see the Hanson brothers,
characters from the movie Slap Shot, towed by a Zamboni,
striking synchronized waterskiing poses, up on one foot, waving
to the crowd as if they were at Cypress Gardens rather than at
Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders lose the game 7-3; it's their
seventh loss in their last 12 games, and coach Mike Milbury
looks as if he regrets his decision to leave the cocoon of the
ESPN studio. From where I sit, the solution seems obvious:
Milbury must sign the Hanson brothers.
10:30 a.m.: What's this? Arizona Fall League baseball! Today's
game pits the Scottsdale Scorpions against the Peoria Javelinas.
These are the horse latitudes of the programming day. I swing
over to chan-nel 319 to catch the end of the Barry Alvarez
Show, just in time for the Wisconsin coach's special guest:
Donna Shalala, the former Wisconsin chancellor who is now U.S.
Secretary of Health and Human Services. The show's earnest young
host, Jeff Lenzen, asks Shalala, "How's it going for you?" There
is no mistaking Lenzen for Ted Koppel.
Shalala knows her audience and speaks to it in its language.
"Running the government shouldn't be any different from running
a university or running a football team," she says. Both Barry
and Jeff seem pleased with this answer, and we go to a
commercial message from the Joe Rizza Automotive Group.
11 a.m.: The first five minutes of Boilermaker Express, on
channel 319, are devoted to gloating over Purdue's rout of
Indiana, which gave the Boilermakers possession of the Old Oaken
Bucket. Next up on the same channel is Indiana Football with
Bill Mallory. Here the issue of the Hoosiers' loss of the Old
Oaken Bucket is dealt with more succinctly. The Penn State
Football Story is next, followed by the show of Florida coach
Steve Spurrier, followed by Northwestern coach Gary Barnett. I
am reminded of Macbeth, who, upon seeing a series of nightmarish
apparitions, cries out, "What, will the line stretch out to th'
crack of doom?"
4 p.m.: The NHL pregame shows are kicking in. On channel 306 the
folks at Madison Square Garden Network have a gleam in their
eyes. Blood seems to be in the water in New York City. Ranger
head coach Colin Campbell was overheard after Monday's game
engaging in a shouting match with winger Luc Robitaille. During
a pregame interview with Campbell, the MSG reporter refuses to
drop the subject. "I guess what we're looking for is some
controversy," says Campbell calmly.
Robitaille comes out flying against the Buffalo Sabres, scoring
a second-period goal. Says MSG's John Davidson, "Luc looks
really focused tonight."
6:30 p.m.: Dinner is served. I suggest we watch the Boston
Celtic-Detroit Piston game while we dine. "I think we'll
probably just turn the television off during dinner," says
Laura. We do. She puts on a Mozart compact disc. I interpret
this as passive aggression. Philistine watches sports on
television. Person of culture enjoys classical music.
Chris Simon, a brawler whose shoulder-length hair makes him look
like a member of the Meat Puppets rather than the Colorado
Avalanche, scores an interesting goal in the third period of
Colorado's game against the New Jersey Devils. Simon banks the
puck off the face mask of Devil goalie Martin Brodeur and into
the net. "Laura, you gotta check this out," I say.
Instead she seems to be checking out the mound of detritus that
has risen around my viewing post: newspapers, plates, coffee
mugs, Coke cans, a nearly empty bag of tortilla chips. Laura
sounds as I imagine Dame Van Winkle did as she asks, "Could you
please clean up your area and not just say you're going to do
it, but actually do it?" The question contains three
implications: I am a slob; I am a lazy slob; I am a lying, lazy
slob. I comply only to reduce her store of ammunition.
The two NHL games I am following end dramatically in sudden
death. The Devils' Stephane Richer beats Colorado's Jocelyn
Thibault on a heart-stopping breakaway. In Miami, Kevin Haller
of the Philadelphia Flyers uncorks a slap shot that caroms off
the rump of a Florida Panther and past goalie John
Vanbiesbrouck. Meanwhile, in Boston, the end of the
Celtic-Piston game is dragged out like the death of Rasputin.
The 10 or so fouls committed in the last two minutes bleed the
drama from the game.
As Stan Fischler is interviewing Richer, Laura breezes past the
set and asks, "Is that Dino Radja?"
The dish is a passage to a new universe. Like the real sports
world, the universe of the dish abounds with disreputable and
undesirable characters. Every so often you need to check for
your wallet. On A Piece of the Game, a couple of guys you might
expect to see in a used-car lot are peddling junk. Item 2138 is
an autographed Marshall Faulk card that's going for a mere
$49.95. Act now, they say, there are only 500 of these babies.
"That's a small quantity, especially for a Rookie of the Year
item," says one of the sharpies.
Item 2131 is a $135 baseball "hand-signed" by Cal Ripken.
Hand-signed? As opposed to what?
9 a.m.: I am enjoying the novelty of ESPN2, which is not offered
by my local cable carrier. I am especially enjoying a show
called Kiana's Flex Appeal. In the proud tradition of Cher,
Charo and Madonna, Kiana eschews a surname. For today's show she
has chosen a white one-piece with a mesh midriff. She is
standing over a muscular young man who is doing lat pull-downs.
"O.K., five more," she commands. "Let's go!"
He obeys, as would I if Kiana would just stand over me and give
me orders. The fact is, Kiana is scorching. But she knows it. At
the end of the show she invites viewers to join "my fitness fan
club." For a fee you get a T-shirt, a subscription to her
newsletter and an 8-by-10 glossy of Kiana.
10:25 a.m.: I am pouring myself a cup of coffee in the kitchen
when Laura asks me, "Have you showered today?"
10:30 a.m.: Cool! World Finals Rodeo from Charleston, S.C., on
the Sunshine Network. After the calf roping, the announcer
throws out a teaser: "Coming up next, fast horses and pretty
women in barrel racing!" I'm not going anywhere.
Barrel racer Doreen Ulery is introduced this way: "She's from
Pennsylvania, New York--up in that country." She wins the event.
In the bull riding an Australian named Adam Church goes
helicoptering off a snorting, furious beast. "That's a long way
to come for no score," drawls our announcer.
5:30 p.m.: Time for a slow lap around the dial. Miami Heat
center Alonzo Mourning is having his way against the Pistons. He
will finish with 13 boards. Still, Zo is not as dominating as
Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who is single-handedly
taking apart the Boston Bruins. Lemieux is on his way to a
four-goal performance in a 9-6 win. To keep themselves amused,
ESPN2 announcers Barry Melrose and Steve Levy are quoting
dialogue from Slap Shot.
Despite Grant Hill's 33 points and 11 boards, the Pistons lose
to Miami. I can't decide which is more entertaining, the game
itself or the brutally candid postgame outburst of Detroit coach
Doug Collins, who identifies three Pistons who did a good job
against Mourning, then indicts the remainder of the squad. "The
rest of our guys were scared to death," Collins says. "They did
not want to have anything to do with Alonzo."
You hear so much drivel at these press conferences that when
someone shares a genuine emotion, it's startling.
8 p.m.: I cede the remote to Laura. Friends is on.
9 p.m.: The remote again in my possession, I decide to try
Playoff Fantasy Football. On the set are Norm Hitzges and Steve
Norm: "That's a pretty nice tie."
Steve: "I can get you one cheap." Click.
Out of Bounds with Chris and Steve is a low-rent but often
highly amusing show slapped together by a pair of former Cal
students. Tonight Steve says he met a Stanford undergraduate at
this year's Big Game and was "struck by Cupid's arrow."
Strumming his guitar, he launches into Little Cardinal Girl, a
mock ballad he has written for his new love:
Little Cardinal girl
Sipping at your Chardonnay
Little Cardinal girl
I will promise not to mention the Play.
Little Cardinal girl
I want you to be my honey
Little Cardinal girl
Can I have some of your daddy's money?
Why am I so captivated by the show jumping at the 37th
Washington International Horse Show? It is not--I repeat, not--the
prospect of a spectacular spill, an ass-over-bandbox yard sale
in which the rider goes flying in one direction, his jodhpurs
and crop in another.
No, I have put the remote aside for the time being because I am
soothed by the refined and lucid commentary of announcers
Bettina Gregory and Eve Lloyd Thompson, who say things like,
"That's a lovely London Bridge jump ... but see how the horse
stalls going into the Liverpool."
6 p.m.: I'll admit it--when I drop in on The Paul Hornung Sports
Showcase, on channel 317, it is with the expectation that I will
not stay long. But Hornung lands some pretty good guests. There
is Pete Rose telling his host why he would like to see Bud Selig
become baseball's commissioner. "I'm real good friends with
George Steinbrenner," says Rose, "and George has nothing but
good things to say about Bud Selig."
Talk about a pair of sterling references.
Sharing a table with Rose, mustering all his self-control to
keep quiet until it is his turn to talk, is Artie Donovan. Art,
says Hornung, what's the deal with all those ESPN commercials?
"They nearly killed me," says Donovan. "Four days in Yonkers!
I'd never do it again! The director kept saying, 'Good, good,
that was good--let's do it again.'"
Unafraid of appearing crass, Hornung asks the ex-Baltimore Colt
how much ESPN paid him. "I made more money doing those
commercials than I did in my first five years playing football,"
The sight of Donovan reminds me that I haven't seen SportsCenter
since the dish went up. I haven't needed to. In one of our many
arguments over whether the dish stays or goes, Laura says,
"Nobody needs all those games. It seems to me that before we got
this, you were perfectly content with highlights on ESPN."
DirecTV spokesperson Linda Brill offers this supermarket
metaphor. "I compare it to going to the grocery store," she
says. "Of course you don't buy everything every time you go. But
it's nice to know it's there if you need it."
Goodbye, Art. So long, Bettina. No more talk shows, no more
fringe sports. The real reason you get DirecTV is to mainline
mainstream sports. The weekend is upon us; it's time to tie off.
The best of the early college hoops games is Temple at
Wisconsin, on channel 309. Who needs a game clock? When Temple
is on the court, you can tell how much time is left in the game
by the degree of Owl coach John Chaney's dishevelment. By the
time Temple loses, 57-54 in overtime, the knot of Chaney's tie
has been pulled halfway down his sternum; his half-untucked
shirt looks as if it has been slept in.
Click. Trailing Penn State by 10 points with 28 seconds left,
Tennessee takes a timeout. "They're hoping for a miracle, but
it's going to take more than that, I'm afraid," says the
announcer, providing a definition of a truly hopeless situation,
which may be what they have in--click--Philadelphia, where the
76ers have lost nine straight going into Saturday night's game
against the New York Knicks. In a pregame intro new 76er Derrick
Coleman is booed by Philadelphia fans, who would boo a blind
child at an Easter-egg hunt and who now boo as the Sixers, after
leading by 11 points, lose their 10th game in a row.
Meanwhile--click--Coleman's old teammates, the New Jersey Nets,
are storming back from a 15-point halftime deficit against the
Cleveland Cavaliers, whom they go on to beat 79-78.
To check in on another team famished for a victory, I click over
to channel 302, where the Rangers are trailing the Ottawa
Senators 1-0. (The Senators will collapse and lose 4-2.) I prick
up my ears when John Davidson makes some mention of "the
Constantine thing." San Jose Shark coach Kevin Constantine, it
turns out, got the ax earlier in the day.
Constantine can commiserate with Islander general manager Don
Maloney, who was also fired today. Clicking up to channel 369, I
see that Maloney's former team is leading the Devils 4-1.
Starting at 7:30 on--click--channel 384 I can watch as
Constantine's old team takes on the Washington Capitals.
In the pregame Sharks Report, Constantine is given his due as
"the winningest coach in Shark history." The thinking seems to
be, Why embarrass the man by pointing out that he is also the
second coach in Shark history?
During the first intermission of Friday night's Shark game,
former Shark Gaetan (Duke) Duchesne told his interviewer, Chris
Collins, what it was like to be out of hockey.
"I'm home every day, so I'm driving my wife crazy," he said.
"It's a big adjustment."
Tell me about it, Duke.
I would like to see how the Shark game turns out, but let's face
it, they're going nowhere this year, and I've got a big day
tomorrow. I need to rest my right thumb.
More than any other sport, football, with its frequent
stoppages, lends itself to channel surfing. Turnover? Timeout?
Incomplete pass? Hit the road, Jack. Move on down the line.
You're paying too much to watch commercials, unless they're very
funny. (Bud Light's "I love you, man" man no longer qualifies.)
Midway through the second quarter of Sunday's early games, I
find myself in a kind of channel-surfing zone: I click over to a
fresh game just in time for the big play. No sooner have I
alighted on channel 338 than Warren Moon hits Cris Carter with a
touchdown pass that puts the Minnesota Vikings up 21-7 over the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shortly thereafter, on channel 337, I bear
witness as New Orleans Saint quarterback Jim Everett throws an
interception against the New England Patriots and,
astonishingly--this is a guy with a reputation for being a bit
effete--gets in a fight with a Patriot defensive tackle on the
return. The Saints end up winning, and Everett's teammates
probably look at him a little differently after the game.
On channel 340 I see Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre
throw the 100th touchdown pass of his career. I descend to
channel 339 just in time to see D'Marco Farr, a St. Louis Ram
defensive lineman, deposit New York Jet quarterback Boomer
Esiason on his bum. It is Farr's third solo sack of the day. I'm
What is it that coaches say? It's a 60-minute game.
Overconfident during the six late games, I never quite catch up
to the action. The Seattle Seahawks go up 14-0 on the
Philadelphia Eagles while I'm out loading the dishwasher. I'm
checking out the Raiders-Chiefs when the Denver Broncos' John
Elway rolls to his right and wedges a 45-yard touchdown bomb
between two Jacksonville Jaguar defenders and into the arms of
Mike Pritchard. I am watching the Washington Redskins run out
the clock on Dallas when Oakland backup quarterback Billy Joe
Hobert brings the Raiders back from the dead.
Next Sunday I hope to put together two complete halves. The
question around this house, however, is, Will there be a next
Sunday? Or will it have been a one-week season? I continue to
make a calm, rational case for keeping the dish; Laura remains
staunchly opposed. As SI goes to press, the matter is unresolved.
But Laura's got that look on her face. Something tells me we
haven't seen the last of Bulmaro.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE [Drawing of Austin Murphy holding remote control while watching DirecTV]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE Bull had one question: through the window or through the wall? [Drawing of Bulmaro (Bull) installing satellite dish]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE For Laura, a dish on one's property fairly shrieks, Trailer park! [Drawing of Austin Murphy and his wife Laura looking atsatellite dish on roof of house]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE It helps to think of DirecTV as a department store. The 300 level is where the sports are. [Drawing of Austin Murphy watching huge television with "EVERY SPORT KNOWN 2 MAN" written on screen]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE Detritus was spread all around my viewing post: cans, plates, coffee mugs, tortilla chips. [Drawing of Austin Murphy seated in chair surrounded by detritus]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE "Nobody needs all those games," she says as we argue about whether the dish stays or goes. [Drawing of Austin Murphy watching television as anvil hangs above his head and his wife Laura holds scissors]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEITH LOCKE Right now the question around our house is, Will there be a next Sunday? [Drawing of Austin Murphy cowering as his wife Laura attacks satellite dish]