Broadcasters Balk at DBS Digital Plan


Broadcasters are waving off a plan hatched by EchoStar Communications Corp. chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen that's designed to make it harder for TV stations to obtain government waivers to miss a key digital-TV deadline.

By next May, all commercial TV stations are required to beam a digital signal, but hundreds of stations — about 30 percent of the total — are expected to miss that deadline.

Those late stations are expected to seek waivers from the FCC under a plan endorsed by the National Association of Broadcasters.

But Ergen is pressing the Federal Communications Commission not to accommodate the NAB by granting blanket waivers, especially to affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.

In exchange for waivers, the FCC should require the network affiliates to allow EchoStar, DirecTV Inc. and even cable operators to import the signals of out-of-market stations that have met the deadline, Ergen said in a Sept. 20 letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell.

In a letter to Powell sent Oct. 24, National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts said EchoStar's plan was designed to promote the interests of EchoStar and not those of the DTV transition.

"While there are many things the FCC can and should do to facilitate the digital transition, entertaining Mr. Ergen's proposal is not one of them," Fritts said in a two-page letter.

Under the Satellite Home Viewer Act, or SHVA, EchoStar is barred from offering distant network signals to households served by local network affiliates.

If the FCC linked deadline waivers to distant signal relief, Ergen said, network affiliates would have an incentive to protect their markets by completing their digital build-outs as quickly as possible.

Fritts said some stations had good cause for missing the May deadline and should be entitled to extensions due to circumstances beyond their control.

He said some stations have been held up by legal and zoning disputes. And TV stations in New York lost their digital transmitters when the World Trade Center was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.

"Yet, in these and many other 'beyond their control' situations, Mr. Ergen would have the FCC use its authority to extract waivers of SHVA rights," Fritts said.

Powell also heard from the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, which represents more than 600 stations affiliated with ABC, NBC and CBS.

In a two-page letter sent Oct. 22, NASA president Alan Frank cited at least four reasons as to why the FCC should reject EchoStar's request, some legal and some technical.

Frank said the FCC already had broad authority to control the actions of TV licensees, including lifting their licenses. Stations missing the deadline faced complications outside their control and should not be punished by an invasion of distant network signals, Franks indicated.

"The loss of signal protection for buildout delays is not an inducement to move faster, but a penalty for stations that cannot move faster," Frank said.