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When DirecTv introduced digital satellite service to its first market June 16, television took its biggest step toward the fabled 500-channel universe since the introduction of cable TV.

Several hundred people lined up outside a Jackson, Miss., retailer to be among the first to buy equipment to pull in the new signal. The service transmits more than 40 traditional programming networks and about 40 dedicated movies-on-demand channels.

While these initial sales represent the "low-hanging fruit," DirecTV is beginning a concentrated brand-building marketing plan to carry the enthusiasm through its national rollout.

"This is the largest launch of a new consumer electronic technology in consumer electronics history" in terms of ad spending and expected sales, said Steve Ste. Marie, VP-sales and marketing at DirecTv, a GM Hughes Electronics unit based in El Segundo, Calif.

Combined with its marketing partners, DirecTv expects total ad spending for the service to exceed $100 million this year, with up to 600,000 subscribers expected by yearend. DirecTv projects a 10 million-home subscriber base by the end of the decade.

Three-year-old direct broadcast satellite service Primestar, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., stole some of the new service's thunder by pledging a $55 million ad campaign from Adler Boschetto Peebles & Partners, New York. Ads will promote the service through early next year.

Primestar represents the cable TV industry's defense against a satellite assault. The service is owned by six of the largest national cable TV companies, including Time Warner Cable and Tele-Communications Inc.

Most of the $50 million DirecTv plans to spend on advertising this year is earmarked for the fourth quarter, when the service will be available nationally.

But DirecTv's partners have vested interests. Thomson Consumer Electronics holds exclusive initial rights to the 18-inch receiving dish, set-top receiver and remote control. All are packaged together under the RCA brand with a suggested retail price of $700, handled by Ammirati & Puris, New York. Next year other manufacturers, including Sony Corp., will sell similar packages.

Also, Hubbard Broadcasting's United States Satellite Service will offer a 30-channel movie programming service, marketed as USSB. The RCA equipment will also be able to pick up the USSB signal.

Bozell, Minneapolis, handles.

In advertising from Lintas Campbell-Ewald, Los Angeles, DirecTv will stress personalized TV options.

The system's subscription packages offer more "a la carte" and pay-per-view options than traditional cable TV. For example, each household can set up two sets of customized on-screen program listings.

Actor Joe Regalbuto, who plays TV newsman Frank Fontana on CBS' "Murphy Brown," is featured in the first TV ads. One 60-second spot walks the viewers through the service, from the small antenna to the additional programming choices. One :30 concentrates on available movies; another :30 promotes the digital signal's quality.

All spots carry the tagline: "It's personalized TV."

DirecTv has met with USSB and Thomson to coordinate media strategies and develop joint promotional materials.

DirecTv will test several media strategies before its national campaign begins in September. At that time, media will include network TV, cable, magazine and national newspapers. The company plans extensive direct mail and, possibly, an infomercial.

All national media buying is being carried out by GM MediaWorks, New York and Detroit. The unit was created by Lintas and sister Interpublic Group of Cos. agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide to handle the automaker's national media account.

The initial target market will be areas not served by cable, representing about 8 million to 12 million homes.

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