Reviews > Culture

Coming and going

Culture | New beanie cats and dogs, the Plymouth nameplate becomes a dog, and the dish versus cable dogfight

Issue: "High stakes at the Court," Jan. 29, 2000

Beanie counters
So the Beanies didn't die after all. Chicago-based Ty Inc. announced last August that the great Beanie Baby toy fad would come to a complete halt at the end of the year. But then the company changed its tune and announced the "Worldwide Beanie Baby Vote." This meant fans would take to the Internet to decide if the little beanbags would stay in production. The results of the poll were a shock to no one: Over 90 percent voted to save the Beanies. Suddenly the little creatures were alive again and two spin-off lines were getting ready to roll. Beanie Buddies are bigger versions of the familiar creatures, and the Baby Ty line is made up of terry cloth toys for wee ones. In the age of eBay, the thirst to collect isn't going away and Beanies aren't the only game in town. Around the world, fans are hoarding Hello Kitty, a mouthless feline with a bow on her ear. When McDonald's held a promotion for the toys in Singapore this month, it had to call in police to handle the crowds. At one store, customers pressed through and shattered a glass door, injuring seven in the crush for $2.70 kittens dressed in wedding outfits. The toys have been available in the United States for years, a craze just waiting to burst out. Even though the value of a particular item may rise and fall, the strange desire for the rare and the useless goes on. Farewell to Plymouth
Another grand old name is going away: DaimlerChrysler is phasing out Plymouth, putting it in the car museum next to De Soto, Maxwell, and Rambler, which were all absorbed into Chrysler. Plymouth started back in 1928 and helped turn Chrysler into one of the Big Three automakers. It'll be gone next year. The Plymouth name hasn't meant much for a long time. Sales in 1998 were down to 307,000 from 750,000 in 1973, with the line simply unable to compete against Japanese cars like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. The brand never recovered from the company's downturn in the 1970s. Chrysler was hurting badly in1978 when Lee Iacocca came in as a white knight after 32 years with Ford. He lobbied Congress to save the company and hit the jackpot. President Carter signed the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act, which let the automaker borrow $1.5 billion from the Treasury. All that cash fueled the K-car fad of the early '80s and helped give birth to the famed family transport of today: the minivan. The Plymouth Voyager (and its sister the Dodge Caravan) came in1983. Even though the vehicle was a hit, executives at what is now DaimlerChrysler realized that buyers didn't care much about the old Plymouth name anymore. So when dealers start taking down the old signs, how many people will notice? Satellite TV breaks through
Would you watch local TV off a satellite dish? Dish Network and DirecTV hope you will, since they're in a dogfight with cable TV companies over home service. This means those long-dreamed-of 500 channels are now available (at least through Dish Network) as competition heats up. Earlier, satellite companies were not allowed to show the local city networks, which broadcast "free" TV over the air. Cable, though, was allowed to run local TV, giving it a big competitive advantage over satellite among viewers who wanted to keep up with the local news and weather. But now, deregulation is letting satellite companies offer local network affiliates in their services, thus letting them compete head-on with cable. It's working. In December, DirecTV scored 225,000 new customers. Dish is giving away the satellite dish and installation for free to win customers away from cable companies. To fight this, cable companies are now offering "digital cable," which means they use compression techniques to cram several channels into the space normally used for one. What the viewer loses in picture quality is gained in channel capacity. This means a smorgasbord of TV choices is rolling out to middle America, offering dozens of channels ranging from the educational to the perverse. Just flipping through the on-screen programming guide could take longer than watching the program. The result: The great water-cooler conversation about what everyone watched last night may be gone for good. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire may be one of the last chit-chat builders, since viewing possibilities are now so endless. You may have been watching The Biography Channel last night while the guy in the next cube was watching BBC America and another was getting nostalgic about 1970s Sesame Street reruns on Noggin. What the customer gets is more choice, but also more isolation. With hundreds of channels, your favorite show may only be seen by a few thousand other people.

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