Disney, Sharpton Blast EchoStar

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It figures to be a busy week for EchoStar Communications Corp. and ABC Family: The Rev. Al Sharpton plans to lead a protest at the direct-broadcast satellite provider's offices and a hearing is set in the cable network's pending suit against the DBS company. ABC Family may also begin layoffs.

Sharpton and the Rev. Horace Sheffield, both involved with the National Action Network, are expected to spearhead a protest on Jan. 15 outside EchoStar's Washington offices. They claim the DBS provider does not offer enough "wholesome" programming for black subscribers, specifically the religious-gospel music The Word Network. As a result, both men are lobbying against federal approval for EchoStar's proposed merger with DirecTV Inc. parent Hughes Electronics Corp.

And on Jan. 17, a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles is slated to conduct a hearing on ABC Family's request for a permanent injunction barring EchoStar from dropping it from its Dish Network. That hearing was postponed from Jan. 10.

The court has already issued a temporary restraining order barring EchoStar from dumping ABC Family until the hearing.

This week could also see the start of significant layoffs at ABC Family by its new owner, The Walt Disney Co., according to a report last week in the Los Angeles Times.

An ABC source confirmed that Disney would cut loose 300 people, roughly half of the network's employees, over the next few weeks.

Regarding Sharpton and Sheffield's charges, EchoStar said it recently added several public-interest channels, as required by and defined by the Federal Communications Commission. One of those was Colours, an African-American cultural and public affairs channel, according to EchoStar's director of communications Judianne Atencio.

The Word Network was considered, but EchoStar felt it did not meet federal qualifications as a public-interest service, Atencio said.

Last week — after claiming that Disney wouldn't negotiate in the press — ABC Cable Networks president Anne Sweeney held a conference call for reporters, alleging that EchoStar has made "misleading statements" regarding ABC Family's license-fee increases.

"The indisputable fact is that Disney has not sought any increase in the carriage fees beyond those agreed to by EchoStar in the contract signed in 1995," Sweeney said. "The irony in EchoStar's comments is that the company has benefited significantly from its relationship with Disney, which began in the mid-1990s when Disney was one of the few programmers willing to support the then-fledgling satellite system."

In response, EchoStar said it stands by its prior Jan. 2 statement, which claims Disney "has imposed rate increases well beyond the rate of inflation."

EchoStar dropped ESPN Classic, another Disney-owned network, on Jan. 1.

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