How Sirius Backseat TV Works

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Parents have developed lots of ways to get their young offspring to behave on long road trips over the years.

­­There's the electronic isolation approach: Give each kid a handheld game system and allow them to destroy simulated villains rather than their siblings. Closely related is the in-car DVD approach, which only works if the front-seaters can handle the aural assault of multiple kiddie shows. Of course, there's always the peace by intimidation method: "Don't make me have to stop this car and come back there!"


Satellite programming company Sirius XM Radio, Inc. says it has another way to promote backseat bliss for the younger crowd. Its Sirius Backseat TV pipes kid-friendly television channels like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and The Disney Channel into the rear seat video monitors of properly equipped vehicles.

­What's more, grown-ups in the front can separately listen to more adult fare while the kids watch and listen to their own programming. It's possible because Sirius fits the television channels within the digital bandwidth that carries the rest of its programming. Consider it one more way in which consumer electronics companies are making entertainment increasingly mobile.

­This article examines the ins and outs of Sirius Backseat TV -- what it is, how it works and how it blurs the distinction between home and mobile video. In order to get programmed television shows in your vehicle, you once needed a bulky satellite receiver on your car's roof, or you could try to receive over-the-air signals with a portable television. To see how Sirius Backseat TV solved the problem, go to the next page.


What is Sirius Backseat TV?

The Chrysler 300 shown here is one of the cars that features Sirius Backseat TV.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images News

Sirius makes its appeal to parents by summoning a refrain they should know very well: "Never again be asked, 'are we there yet?'"

Like a high-tech, electronic nanny, Sirius Backseat TV offers to keep the kids pacified and occupied while they're being ferried about in their parents' vehicle.


What is Sirius Backseat TV, anyway? Simply put, it's a mobile entertainment service that consists of Sirius tuning hardware and a monthly subscription for the programming. For the moment, it's available as an installed option exclusively on new Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. It'll set you back $470 for the receiver and the first year of service, and it's available on these vehicles:

  • Dodge Grand Caravan
  • Dodge Charger­­
  • Dodge Magnum
  • Chrysler Town & Country
  • Chrysler 300
  • Jeep Commander
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee

­But if you're not buying a new Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep, you can also have it installed as an aftermarket option, similar to a custom car stereo system. As an aftermarket option, Sirius refers to the product as the Sirius Connect Audio/Video Tuner (SCV1). If you buy the unit separately to mount in a car you already own, it'll cost you about $300, plus a $6.99 monthly subscription fee and the normal $12.95 monthly Sirius satellite radio subscription, which you must have in order to get the satellite television service.

You must supply the backseat monitor (or monitors) yourself, and, like Sirius radio, the system can be integrated with your existing car radio and DVD player.

The system includes two small antennae that are installed on the roof of your car, and the TV channels are squeezed into the same swath of spectrum bandwidth as Sirius' 130 radio channels. The video quality has generally received good marks from reviewers -- you won't mistake it for HD, but users report they see none of the lag or pixilated imaging that has plagued some mobile video services in the past.

Like other satellite-dependent entertainment systems, Sirius broadcasts can fade out in inclement weather or when the vehicle is near obstructions like tall buildings or tunnels. That's because these disturbances keep the satellite signal from reaching your antenna or dish. Satellite industry suppliers are constantly developing equipment to decrease the weather's impact on your signal, known as "rain fade" [source: Carter].

Backseat TV comes with a child-friendly wired remote control that lets backseat viewers select between channels. People in the front seat also get a wired remote they can use to select their own Sirius radio programs.

The Backseat TV programming itself is television that incorporates shows from Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel feature round-the-clock airings of their full-length shows, including SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, Hannah Montana and Cory in the House. The Cartoon Network offerings are much shorter and are packaged into a sub-brand called Cartoon Network Mobile. Instead of full-length shows, this network runs short-form programming that includes two- to 11-minute clips from shows like Chowder, My Gym Partner's a Monkey and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends.

­Parents and children alike have plenty of reasons to love this technology, but is it a good idea to drive with live television in your car when distracted driving remains such a touchy issue? Before you form an opinion, read the next page.


Watching TV in the Backseat

The driver of this tricked-out truck ought to keep an eye out for cops on the highway.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images Entertainment

Come on, admit it: There's just something mesmerizing about pulling up on another car's rear quarter and peering into the blue glow of LCD screens inside. Your first thought is probably, "What are they watching?"

Could ­­that voyeuristic instinct become a safety hazard if drivers everywhere start installing video units? Sirius almost seemed poised for the legal backlash by purposefully naming its product Backse­at TV. Sirius knew what it was doing: Many states have passed laws forbidding front-seat video viewing, for safety's sake. Lawmakers and electronics manufacturers compromised; the tech companies agreed to disable the front seat car stereo's video capabilities if the vehicle's emergency brake is disengaged. In other words, the video will only play in the front seat when the vehicle is in park and the parking brake is applied.


Of course, inventive enthusiasts have created all kinds of hacks and workarounds to circumvent this safety feature. However, police officers can -- and do -- issue tickets for front-seat monitors that they see playing while someone's driving. However, you can install as many back seat video screens as you please.

­Apparently, lawmakers feel the risks posed by a driver viewing someone else's car video programming are acceptable, but the research literature is somewhat fuzzy on this point. Numerous studies point to the risks of distracted driving, but no one can pinpoint the exact number of auto accidents caused by consumer electronics. In recent years, public officials have focused specifically on conducting cell phone conversations and texting while driving. "The more devices you have in a vehicle, the more potential distractions you have," said Ron Kipling, a specialist in human factors in traffic safety for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute [source: Evangelista]. That said, wouldn't a device that reduces the distraction of screaming children in the back seat benefit a driver's concentration? Perhaps the proliferation of cell phones with streaming video and better live television offerings to drivers will produce more research on the relationship between the small screen and driver safety.

Can someone with minimal electronics skills rig a monitor to play Backseat TV up front? Sure, but common sense should prevail to ensure that you don't have videos playing where they will distract you and endanger others on the road.

­­Now that we've looked at some of the safety concerns associated with Sirius Backseat TV, let's look at it from a business standpoint. To find out why this innovation may or may not work, go to the next page.


Sirius Backseat TV Costs

Despite the severity of the current economic downturn, analysts predict the mobile communications industry to continue its exponential growth.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images News


One thought might occur to an adult considering this product: Does it make sense to spend so much money to avoid speaking to the kids on road trips? Will anyone buy this?


Keep in mind that this product currently costs at least three hundred bucks up front, plus $20 a month for the subscription. It's not exactly cheap, especially when you consider that conversation is free. On the other hand, part of that subscription price includes access to Sirius audio channels.

Mobile reception systems for satellite television provider DirecTV have been available for years, but their bulk (appropriate only for SUVs, RVs or vans and not passenger cars) and expense ($1,500 or more) have sharply limited their appeal.

From a business perspective, Sirius is doing what any forward-thinking subscription media service should do. They're using technology to search for ways to reach new customers and expand revenue. Cable TV companies, phone companies and satellite programming providers all aim to increase what they call average revenue per unit (ARPU). ARPU is a measurement -- specifically, total product revenue divided by the total number of product subscribers -- used by communications companies to track a product's popularity and growth. They can increase ARPU by raising rates and aggravating customers, or they can do it by adding services and charging a bit more for them.

What's unknown at this point is how consumers will respond, given the rapid changes occurring in the marketplace. Streaming video to cell phones has gained more visibility in the United States with services such as Verizon's V-Cast and Sprint's Sprint TV. At the same time, the financial crisis that boiled over in 2008 threatens to dull consumer appetites for non-essential expenses for some time.

There hasn't been an immediate rush by U.S. consumers to embrace mobile live television offerings like Backseat TV, but analysts expect that to change. The United States has typically lagged behind places like Japan and Europe when it comes to mobile communications -- more evolved cell phone networks in these regions have permitted quality streaming video since the early 2000s. "It's just a matter of time" before the mobile video lifestyle becomes popular, telecom analyst Jeff Kagan told U.S. News & World Report [source: LaGesse].


­For now at least, Sirius considers Backseat TV an ancillary service, or something that's not a primary contributor to its bottom line. However, as mobile video gains wider consumer acceptance in the United States, it would be short-sighted to predict the "small screen" sector will remain small.

To find out more about Sirius Backseat TV, head over to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Carter, Gary. "New Era For SatRadio Distribution." SatMagazine - The Year In Review. December 2008. (Jan. 1, 2009)
  • DigitalTips - Your Ultimate Guide to Consumer Electronics. "State Laws for Electronics Use in the Car." (Dec. 26, 2008)
  • Elgan, Mike. "In-car gadgets - less dangerous than you might think." Computerworld - Blogs. July 21, 2008. (Dec. 30, 2008)
  • Evangelista, Benny. "Divided Attention - In-car Entertainment Systems May Keep the Kids Quiet, But Are They Distracting Drivers?" San Francisco Chronicle. Oct. 14, 2002. (Dec. 27, 2008).
  • LaGesse, David. "A Half-Dozen Ways to Get TV on the Go." U.S. News and World Report. May 23, 2008. (Dec. 28, 2008)
  • Satellite Today. "Sirius Launches Aftermarket Tuner for Backseat TV." August 17, 2007. (Dec. 23, 2008)
  • Sirius XM Inc. "Form 10-Q (Quarterly Report)." Nov. 12, 2008. (Dec. 27, 2008)
  • Sirius XM Inc. "Sirius Backseat TV." (Dec. 23, 2008)
  • STMicroelectronics. "STMicoelectronics' Digital Satellite Broadcast Chips Enable In-Vehicle SIRIUS Backseat TV." June 27, 2007. (Jan. 1, 2009)