DirecTV to Carry Public TV Stations in HD

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Starting next year, DirecTV will provide high-definition feeds of local public television stations to its subscribers after reaching a 10-year deal with the Association of Public Television Stations and the Public Broadcasting Service.

The HD carriage marks the first time the satellite operator will offer public TV programming in digital format. DirecTV will carry local public TV stations’ HD feeds in markets where it offers local HD programming. Currently, the direct-broadcast operator offers local HD channels in 68 markets, which according to DirecTV represents 72% of U.S. TV households.

In addition, DirecTV will offer two new national standard-definition digital channels with public television programming and said it plans to work with APTS and PBS also to offer new video-on-demand content.

DirecTV vice president of government affairs Stacy Fuller said local public TV HD signals will be on the same tier as other local stations, but she said the operator has not decided which packages will include the two national SD channels. She said the rollout schedule – that is, when specific local HD feeds will be available – has not been released.

The deal ensures DirecTV will provide PBS programming up to and past the February 2009 digital TV transition, a federal mandate requiring local broadcasters to relinquish their analog airwaves. Under existing must-carry rules, DirecTV provides carriage of analog public TV stations in 143 markets.

Cable announced its own 10-year agreement to carry the digital signals of public TV stations in February 2005, a pact negotiated by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, APTS and PBS.

In September, however, the Federal Communications Commission adopted must-carry rules that will require cable operators to offer analog as well as digital versions of TV stations opting for must carry. That has left some ambiguity about the 2005 deal between cable and public TV stations, which covers only digital signals.

About the DirecTV deal with public television, APTS president and CEO John Lawson said in a statement: “This is a forward-looking, innovative agreement for the digital age… This is a great day for public service media in America.”

The terms of the deal were approved by the APTS board of trustees Tuesday. The PBS board of directors must still approve the deal, and the agreement must be ratified by local public TV stations.

Last month, at the Future of TV conference in New York, Lawson noted that APTS was in discussions with DirecTV about carriage of public television stations’ digital TV signals. However, he added, “We’re really nowhere with EchoStar [Communications]. This is a case where the marketplace is failing, and we’re hoping Congress and the FCC will step in.”

EchoStar spokesman Parker McConachie declined to comment. The company operates the Dish Network direct-broadcast satellite service.

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