Deadline Near on Must-Carry Case

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The Supreme Court is scheduled to decide this week whether to hear a case on the constitutionality of a local broadcast TV carriage law as applied to the direct-broadcast satellite industry.

Under the law, a DBS carrier is required to carry every requesting local TV station in a market where that carrier has elected to provide any local TV stations.

The Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association and EchoStar Communications Corp. maintain the carriage mandate violates the First Amendment because it effectively restricts the number of markets a DBS carrier may serve and promotes the speech of lightly viewed stations in a served market over that of network affiliates in an unserved market.

DirecTV Inc., whose parent Hughes Electronics Corp. is hoping to merge with EchoStar, was an original plaintiff but dropped out of the case in March.

The carriage mandate, a 1999 provision of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act, was upheld in December by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit just a few weeks before the "carry one, carry all" mandate was to take effect.

The three-judge panel held that the law fell within the traditional bounds of the First Amendment and represented a tailored attempt by Congress to ensure that satellite carriers did not disrupt local TV markets by cherry picking the most popular stations — typically, the affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — and ignoring the rest.

According to the Supreme Court's calendar, the nine justices are schedule to convene privately on June 13 to decide whether to take the case. The court plans to make its decision public on June 17. It takes the votes of four justices at a minimum for the court to agree to hear a case.

A few weeks ago, the high court dismissed without comment EchoStar's First Amendment challenge to a law that restricts a DBS carrier's ability to provide subscribers with the signals of network affiliates from distant markets.

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