Washington -- The direct-broadcast satellite industry is
bracing for a new effort by the Federal Communications Commission to impose
public-interest programming requirements on DBS carriers.
New FCC chairman William Kennard, according to DBS-industry
sources, is hoping to use the proceeding to expand programming outlets for racial and
language minorities, who Kennard feels are badly underrepresented in the ownership ranks
of the mass media.
'I think we're going back to the drawing one more
time because the new chairman has some new ideas on some of the things that this spectrum
can be used for,' said Charles Hewitt, president of the Satellite Broadcasting and
Andy Paul, SBCA senior vice president, said he expects the
FCC to put out for public comment proposals for the use of DBS spectrum for
'programming to minorities, perhaps some foreign-language programming -- things that
are slightly different but that would reach out to groups who may not be necessarily in
Today, EchoStar has plans to migrate some of its
foreign-language programming to its recently launched satellite at a separate orbital slot
than its more popular Dish Network lineup. Subscribers would need a second dish to
retrieve both services.
DirecTv Inc. last week announced plans to introduce a wide
range of ethnic programming at orbital spectrum apart from its current programming lineup.
Subscribers would need a larger dish and a modified Digital Satellite System receiver to
receive both ethnic and current programming.
It is unclear whether foreign-language programming
delivered to separate satellites would fulfill DBS public-service requirements.
Under the 1992 Cable Act, DBS firms are required to set
aside between 4 percent and 7 percent of their channel capacity for 'noncommercial
programming of an educational or informational nature.'
A federal court declared the DBS set-aside unconstitutional
in 1993, but a higher court reversed that decision in 1996, setting the stage for the FCC
rulemaking that commenced a year ago.
But the agency never adopted rules as the proceeding got
bogged down in debates over cost assignment, editorial control and other topics.
During last year's comment period, the cable industry
voiced concern that DBS companies would attempt to fulfill their obligation by carrying
cable public-affairs programming, such as C-SPAN, and cable educational programming, such
as The Learning Channel. Cable operators said DBS operators should come up with their own
Paul said one of the biggest issues was creating
public-interest programming that had national appeal, instead of local appeal.
Just as important, Paul said, is for the FCC to conclude
that DBS carriers have the right to pick their public-interest programmers.
'The whole thing hinges on what we call
'editorial control,'' Paul said. 'That's what we are pressing
hard to accomplish.'
Hewitt said the SBCA has been in touch with public-interest
groups about reaching a compromise on the editorial-control issue and other issues.