Washington -- With thousands of satellite dish owners shorn
of their out-of-town Fox and CBS signals by court decree, the next step is up to the Hill.
Congress could take steps this week to restore service as
well as launch a breakneck effort to pass a law allowing direct-broadcast satellite
carriers to offer local TV signals.
Fearful that waves of angry dish owners will inundate
Congress with complaints when CBS and Fox show up as test patterns, key House lawmakers
said they will make a bid this week to stay the judge's decision for 90 days.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) introduced the bipartisan bill on
Feb. 25 with the support of Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) and the
panel's ranking member Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.)
Although substantive legislation seldom passes the House in
a flash, House lawmakers said the 90-day moratorium just might prove to be an exception.
"I think [this] week it could pass," Tauzin said.
Bliley said enacting stay legislation was urgent.
"We've got to get it done," he said as he left
one of last week's three congressional hearings on the controversy and proposals to allow
DBS carriers to provide local TV signals.
Senate cooperation, of course, would be essential. Senate
Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he was unaware of the moratorium
effort and would have to review the bill before commenting. Interestingly, Hatch said his
office was not being bombarded with complaints from his state's 101,300 dish owners.
Broadcasters went to court to stop DBS carriers from
providing distant-network signals to those who can pick up the same programming from local
As part of the moratorium, Tauzin's bill would require the
FCC to create a highly accurate model for predicting who is eligible to receive a
distant-network signal. The current model, created in the 1950s, is derided by the
satellite industry as qualitatively inferior to models that could be devised today.
The satellite industry said reliance upon the model
required by current law is the source of much of the controversy with broadcasters.
"The current standard doesn't properly define who gets
a good signal," said David Moskowitz, senior vice president and general counsel of
EchoStar Communications Corp. "It might have worked in the 1950s but not in
While the pending cutoff of CBS and Fox was capturing the
headlines, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Hatch's bill. His measure
would make the necessary changes in copyright law to allow DBS carriers like EchoStar to
serve dish owners with local signals.
Hatch said his bill won't advance to the Senate floor
unless Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) can bridge the differences
between the satellite and broadcaster industries. Broadcasters oppose McCain bill,
claiming it would grandfather the 2.2 million dish owners who were served illegally prior
to judicial intervention.
McCain said last week he wants his panel to vote on his
bill this Wednesay (March 3), although he acknowledged it would leave "a lot of blood
on the floor here and on the Senate."
The National Association of Broadcasters, in a surprise
announcement last week, said it wants any local DBS bill to state that when a satellite
carrier serves a local TV market with local signals, the DBS carrier is prohibited from
offering distant-network signals in the same market.
James C. May, NAB's executive vice president of government
relations, said he would leave it to Congress to decide whether EchoStar's initiation of
local TV signal service in a market should prohibit DirecTV Inc. from providing
distant-network signals in the same market.
Moskowitz said he would give a "qualified yes" to
NAB's proposal insofar as it applied to EchoStar.
"If we're providing local in a particular market, we
would be willing to stop providing the distant signals. The only concern is that if one of
my competitors can still provide a distant signal, then I shouldn't get penalized for
providing the local signal," Moskowitz said.
Charles M. Hewitt, president of the Satellite Broadcasting
and Communications Association, blasted the NAB for offering "the most consumer
unfriendly proposal" in the debate. He said the law shouldn't turn EchoStar's
business plan into a massive consumer headache for DirecTV, which is not planning to
provide local signals.
"It means that 4.5 million DirecTV subscribers would
have to go out and buy either several hundred dollars of additional equipment or else get
rid of their equipment and go buy a Dish [Network, Echostar's brand name]," Hewitt