Satellite

EchoStar Thinks Locally

11/14/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Washington— EchoStar Communications Corp. has opened a new front in its ongoing battle with local TV stations.

For years, EchoStar and TV broadcasters have wrestled in court over the direct-broadcast satellite operator’s decision to provide distant feeds of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to Dish Network subscribers that should have been getting that same programming locally.

The fighting intensified when EchoStar decided to require subscribers in 38 markets to obtain a second dish in order to receive all their local TV stations. Broadcasters stormed Capitol Hill looking to ban the two-dish practice after the Federal Communications Commission gave EchoStar just a slap on the wrist.

THE 4% PROPOSAL

Now, EchoStar has launched a new crusade — one that calls on the FCC to impose local programming quotas on TV stations. Under EchoStar’s plan, stations could refuse to comply, but they would forfeit their right to mandatory satellite carriage in the relevant market.

“In other words, stations that can demonstrate that they are 'local’ would qualify for carriage. Those that chose not to meet a minimal standard would not be allowed to enforce carriage rights under [the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act],” EchoStar told the FCC in a Nov. 1 filing.

At a minimum, TV stations should reserve 4% of their time to public-affairs programming and public-service announcements geared toward the communities to which they’re licensed to serve, EchoStar said. It picked 4% because FCC rules require DBS operators to set aside that amount for public-interest programming.

The National Association of Broadcasters is adamantly opposed to local programming quotas, arguing that TV stations in the aggregate already offer “vast amounts of community-responsive programming” and help local charities raise millions of dollars.

“In many respects, a station’s participation in community events is often inseparable from the community-responsive programming it produces and airs,” NAB said in a lengthy filing with the FCC on Nov. 1.

In 1984, the FCC had rules that required a TV station to offer local programming in order to gain staff approval of its license-renewal application. The processing guidelines mandated at least 5% local and a minimum of 10% non-entertainment programming.

But broadcasters — who said market conditions would force stations to provide local programming — persuaded the FCC to drop the quotas.

Concerned the decision two decades ago has not worked as planned, the FCC has opened an inquiry on TV-station localism in an effort to determine if stations are reaching out to their communities, and if they’re doing enough to keep viewers informed on local political issues.

Over the last 20 years, EchoStar said many — perhaps even a majority — of TV stations have evolved into nothing more than “downlinks and distribution points for national programming.”

STATION ANALYSIS

As proof of that assertion, EchoStar conducted an analysis of the stations it carries on its “wing” satellites, which require a second dish to view. The company said it carries 103 stations in two-dish markets, but 57% “air absolutely no local public affairs or news programming” and just 9.7% dedicate more than 5% of their programming to local public affairs and news programming.

Many of these stations, EchoStar claimed, are local spigots for the retransmission of nationally distributed network and syndicated programming. EchoStar said that stations offering identical programming lineups regardless of the market are taking up channel space that could be allocated to other programmers that would offer greater diversity.

EchoStar said 25% of the stations located on wing satellites replicate the national feed.

An examination of the Washington, D.C. market seems to support claims made by both the NAB and EchoStar. The market’s leading stations — affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox — offer a steady flow of local news and public-interest programming, buttressing NAB’s point that local needs are being addressed by the market as a whole.

However, a station-by-station critique would seem to support EchoStar’s position. The D.C. market includes a UPN affiliate owned by News Corp. and The WB affiliate owned by Tribune Co. Neither provides news or regularly schedules locally produced programming.

Instead, the two stations essentially offer wall-to-wall syndicated programming, including sitcoms, game shows, infomercials, and talk shows like Jerry Springer and Maury.

UPN spokeswoman Ivey Van Allen said Major League Baseball and college-basketball games aired by WDCA-TV should qualify as local programming. She didn’t know whether the station had “any immediate plans” to offer local news.

Eric Meyrowitz, station manager of WBDC-TV, said The WB affiliate aired election-related programming geared toward the youth vote leading up to the November elections. Beginning Sunday Jan. 9 at 8:30 a.m., the station plans to launch a weekly half-hour show called WB Now, which will include newsmaker interviews with local politicians.

He said the idea to air the show was a joint decision made by himself and Tribune.

“We’ll certainly look to do other type specials,” he added. “We don’t have any planned at this time.”