Congress Weighs In on DBS Distant-Signal Debate8/23/1998 8:00 PM Eastern
Fearing a heated backlash from constituents, Congress sent
a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard last Wednesday,
asking him to clarify how direct-broadcast satellite customers will be affected by an
injunction that threatens to turn off distant-network signals to many DBS households by
Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on
Commerce, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce,
asked Kennard to estimate the number of DBS households likely to lose distant-network
service following a preliminary injunction ordered by a federal district court in Miami
The debate was stirred in part by one week's worth of
testimony in Miami, which wrapped up late last week, that was meant to decide whether to
make the injunction permanent.
The temporary injunction enjoins distant-network-signal
distributor PrimeTime 24 and its affiliates from distributing CBS and Fox signals to
"served" households anywhere in the country. No ruling had been handed down at
"The court's injunction threatens to undermine the
progress that we have made in promoting competition," Bliley's and McCain's letter
read. "Network programming, be it local or otherwise, is widely viewed as critical to
the competitive viability of any distributor of multichannel-video programming."
Bliley's and McCain's letter also reached the FCC on the
same day that a district court in North Carolina ordered PT24 to stop sending ABC signals
to any homes within Raleigh station WTVD's grade-B contour.
A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters
called the decision a "death penalty" for PT24.
Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association
senior vice president Andy Paul called the North Carolina court's judgment "very
harsh," noting that even homes that legally qualify for distant-network signals will
be cut off.
A spokesman for DirecTv Inc. said the company would comply
with the North Carolina court's order, but the consumer would suffer. He reiterated that
DirecTv was not directly connected to any of the suits against PT24.
Members of Congress were not the only ones bracing for a
step-up in complaints from disenfranchised DBS viewers: Others in Washington, D.C.,
including the FCC and the U.S. Copyright Office, have already received calls. And
broadcast networks and their affiliates, as well as DBS providers, are taking steps to
communicate the changes to their audiences.
DirecTv is the only DBS company that currently distributes
PT24 distant-network signals, although the programming is also delivered to some C-band
The National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative announced
earlier this month that it had set up a Web site, www.tvaccessnow.com, designed to educate satellite viewers
faced with the blackout of their network signals.
In a prepared statement, NRTC CEO Bob Phillips estimated
that more than 1 million satellite households could face losing access to network
television because of the Miami federal district court's injunction.
The NRTC Web site provides links to congressional members
and network affiliates.
EchoStar Communications Corp. last week followed the NRTC's
lead in petitioning the FCC to define "unserved households" for the sake of the
Satellite Home Viewer Act, which was enacted by Congress to permit the delivery of
broadcast-network signals to households outside the reach of a grade-B signal.
The EchoStar petition claimed, "The Florida court
inappropriately based its ruling on misguided and inaccurate assumptions about the
commission's rules, threatening to leave hundreds of thousands of consumers without any
On its own Web site, EchoStar also directs its subscribers
to contact Congress regarding satellite-friendly legislation. And EchoStar chairman and
CEO Charlie Ergen frequently uses his monthly on-air "Charlie Chat" to update
his viewers on Washington matters.