Operators recognize value of satellite TV for improving shipboard morale

Gladiator is a great movie, but, as even the most diehard of Russell Crowe fans will tell you, after the 14th viewing it gets old.

So picture this: You are an oil rig worker aboard a crew boat, killing time before arriving at your rig. Or maybe you work on an offshore tug. Work is finished for the day and you have exhausted your supply of reading material. Or perhaps you are a deck hand on a containership somewhere between Hong Kong and Seattle. Your watch just ended and you can’t sleep. You certainly don’t want to watch Gen. Maximus and the Roman legions of the north trample unruly Germanic tribes for the fourth time in the last week. So what do you do?

Aboard an increasing number of commercial vessels with satellite television, you flick on the tube.

The crew of the crew boat Greater Scott enjoy a meal in the galley equipped with a big screen TV. Left to right are Capt. Larry Morton, Engineer Will Glasen, Capt. Calvin Kirkland and Capt. Robert Wheeler.

“You can only have so many DVDs on board before you start getting bored with them,” said Chris Watson, marketing manager for KVH Industries. “A lot of crewmembers want to follow live sports and don’t want to wait a couple weeks to get a videotape of a soccer match if they are in Europe or the World Series if they are in North American waters.”

Satellite television aboard commercial vessels is a rapidly increasing trend. While there is still a long way to go before every operator can boast of a satellite setup — Sean O’Neil, marine sales manager for King Controls, estimates the percentage of vessels equipped with satellite antennas at less than 50 percent — it seems to be steadily moving in that direction.

KVH Industries saw its total marine sales (which encompasses the sale of both satellite TV and satellite communications systems) rise 23 percent in the first quarter of 2008 in comparison to the first quarter of 2007, while its international marine revenue rose nearly 30 percent from 2006 to 2007.

Similarly, Sea Tel Inc., a specialist in marine satellite antennas, has seen an average growth of approximately 20 percent in each of the past seven years and King Controls has seen its marine sales increase steadily for five years.

What is the reason for this boom? Part of it has to do with technological advances in the field. By decreasing the size of their antennas while retaining the individual unit’s effectiveness and range, providers have found themselves able to offer comparable products at a lower cost. Sea Tel Inc. launched its smallest and most inexpensive antenna in 2007, the Coastal 14, and as a result has been able to lower the price of its most basic unit from $5,875 to $4,395.

That’s still a substantial sum, but operators seem to feel it’s worth it. Claude Mixon is the senior vice president of Eckstein Marine Service LLC, which began installing satellite antennas on the company’s vessels in 2006. “We added satellite TV … to improve the quality of life on our boats,” said Mixon. “Our mariners work away from home for several weeks at a time, and satellite TV provides them with entertainment, news and weather reports. … We want to provide every convenience that we can to our dedicated teams.”

Casey Cundieff, vice president of Texas Crewboats out of Freeport, Texas, expressed similar sentiments. “Basically we do some long routes; for the crews, we like for them to have some of the comforts from home. (Also) just for the passengers’ sakes, it’s a convenience thing.”

The passenger cabin of crew boat Seacor Cheetah is dominated by two TV screens.

Texas Crewboats currently has satellite TV on two of the seven vessels in its fleet. Miss Claire was built satellite-capable in 2006, while Greater Scott went into service for the first time in 2008 with three flat-panel televisions all equipped with satellite service. A third vessel, Sea Angel, is set to join the fleet in September and will also boast a satellite antenna.

The crew’s response? “Of course they love it,” said Cundieff, whose fleet uses Sea Tel antennas with Dish Network as a provider, “not for any particular reason; that’s just what we have been using on the boat so far and have had pretty good luck with it. … We have some issues if the sea conditions are bad and the boat is rocking, for the most part we have been real happy about it.”

Eckstein Marine uses Direct TV as a provider and has installed dishes from KVH and King Controls.

During an economic downturn, with gas prices exceeding $4 a gallon and crude oil reaching an all-time high, most Americans are demonstrating a reluctance to spend money. It might seem surprising in such times that the marine sector of satellite antenna sales should be enjoying great success. KVH’s Watson conceded that right now smaller boat owners probably aren’t looking to outfit their vessels with a spiffy satellite setup. Yet while recreational yachters may have become more cost-conscious, the commercial sector is thriving.

“For commercial operators, where keeping the crew happy becomes a necessity, adding satellite TV and Internet access allows (the crew) to pass the time and to talk to their families,” said Watson. “I think we are seeing an increased number of commercial operators (purchasing satellite antennas) because they realize crew morale and crew retention are critical to the operation of their business.”

The maxim you have to spend money to make money seems to apply in this case. Or perhaps more appropriately, you have to spend money to keep your crew happy so they won’t quit and go work for your technologically superior competitor.

Peter Broadhurst, vice president of sales and marketing for Sea Tel, said that whether or not an employer offers satellite television “can be used (by potential crewmembers) to decide on which vessels (they) will sail.”

It does not appear that this trend will end anytime soon. “This segment of the marketplace is still in its infancy,” said King Controls’ O’Neil. “There are a lot of boats out there that don’t have (satellite television) that are candidates for it.”

Cundieff of Texas Crewboats believes that as more operators opt to install satellite antennas aboard their vessels, more crews will begin to expect their employers to offer satellite TV.

As satellite television becomes the rule aboard commercial vessels and miniaturization continues to drive down prices, it seems likely that the recent boom in marine satellite antenna sales will continue. This is good news for hardware and service providers and better news for mariners. No longer will they be subjected to watching the same old movies on DVDs during their time at sea.

The bad news? Gladiator is a frequent play on any movie channel. But now a growing number of mariners will be able to change the channel.

By Professional Mariner Staff