EchoStar Communications Corp. has filed an antitrust suit against ABC
affiliate Allbritton Communications Co. over local-TV-carriage disputes in three
markets, including Washington, D.C., which have left thousands of satellite
consumers without ABC primetime programming since Saturday.
EchoStar filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Washington Monday, two days
after it lost the right under the current contract to carry WJLA in Washington
and ABC stations in Harrisburg, Pa.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Tulsa, Okla.
The direct-broadcast satellite carrier also filed a complaint with the
Federal Communications Commission the same day, claiming that Allbritton
violated federal law with demands that were inconsistent with the broadcaster's
obligation to bargain in "good faith."
EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin confirmed the legal moves Tuesday.
Jerald Fritz, Allbritton's senior vice president of legal and strategic
affairs, said EchoStar opted to pull the signals even though it appeared that
the broadcaster had cemented a deal with EchoStar chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen
that would have averted the clash.
"The deal is sitting on Charlie Ergen's desk to be signed. All he has to do
is sign it and the signal goes back," Fritz said.
EchoStar sources countered that the DBS provider did not have the legal right
to carry the stations without Allbritton's consent and the broadcaster refused
to extend the current deal temporarily or submit the dispute to arbitration.
The two are at loggerheads over a long-standing dispute between network
affiliates and DBS carriers: carriage of distant network signals.
Allbritton is demanding that in order to gain access to its signals, EchoStar
must agree to stop importing distant network signals into Allbritton's markets.
The law allows importation to DBS subscribers that can't use off-air antennas to
pick up local affiliates.
Network affiliates fear that out-of-town network feeds offering the same
programming siphon off viewers and erode their sole source of revenue:
Ergen took to the airwaves in recent days to explain his side of the story to
Dish Network subscribers.
In the FCC compliant, EchoStar said Allbritton would "withhold perhaps the
most important source of emergency information" from Washington viewers at a
time when the nation's capital was under a "code orange" terrorism threat.
In the antitrust suit, EchoStar alleged that Allbritton is illegally using
its market power to extend exclusivity rights to ABC programming "beyond the
area granted by Congress."
On behalf of Allbritton, WJLA news anchor and reporter Doug McKelway went on
the air to accuse EchoStar of dropping the station because the DBS carrier
insisted on distributing programming originating in New York.
An off-camera announcer then explained how to "dump Dish Network" and sign up
for DirecTV Inc. or "your local cable operator."
Fritz defended the use of a journalist to wage the corporate battle against
"He is the face of our station. He was giving information to our viewers, and
that's what anchors do," he said.
The carriage dispute has affected about 80,000 Dish Network subscribers in
"This is not a good situation for consumers," Fritz said. "This is not at all
what we had hoped for. We had hoped that Charlie would be reasonable and that we
would have an agreement."