FCC Punts on Enforcing DBS HD Mandate

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Washington— You're a local TV station on digital's bleeding edge — where Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell wants you to be — pumping out quantities of high-definition TV programming unlike any other station in the country.

The law says you're entitled to carriage on direct-broadcast satellite systems, but, paradoxically, the FCC won't let it happen.

That strange scenario played out two weeks ago, when the FCC told the only TV station operating around-the-clock in high definition format that it was currently ineligible for carriage on direct-broadcast satellite platforms.

In a decision made by the agency's Media Bureau, the FCC ruled that station WHDT in Stuart, Fla., could not assert its DBS must-carry rights because the agency lacked rules regulating terms of DBS carriage of digital TV stations.

Last August, WHDT filed a compliant after EchoStar Communications Corp. refused the station's carriage request.

"We are pleased with the FCC's decision," said EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin.

WHDT is the country's first and only 24-hour HDTV station. In a prior decision, the FCC said WHDT could seek analog cable carriage provided the station paid for the conversion equipment.

WHDT is carried in analog by area cable systems, primarily those owned by Adelphia Communications Corp.

Martin's interest

Because it's still considering its policy options with respect to DBS carriage of DTV signals, the FCC said it could not rule that EchoStar was violating the law by not carrying WHDT.

According to one source, Republican FCC member Kevin Martin was concerned about the outcome in the EchoStar-WHDT dispute. For nearly a year, Martin had advocated that the FCC rapidly resolve numerous DTV policy disputes involving broadcasters, satellite carriers and cable systems.

Under the 1999 Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (SHVIA), a DBS carrier is required to carry all television stations in a market where it has elected to carry as few as one over-the-air signal.

If forced to carry WHDT in high definition, EchoStar threatened to discontinue local TV service in the West Palm Beach market, citing bandwidth constraints imposed by HDTV signals. EchoStar said one HDTV signal occupied as much bandwidth as eight analog TV stations.

Declined gesture

The DBS carrier said it would rather serve an all-analog market than carry bandwidth-intensive WHDT. As a good-faith gesture, EchoStar offered to carry WHDT in standard definition, but the station refused.

WHDT may appeal the bureau's ruling to the five FCC members or sue EchoStar in federal court for violating SHVIA's carry-one, carry-all mandate. WHDT owner Guenther Marksteiner, who had yet to read the FCC's decision, indicated he would prefer waiting for the FCC to adopt carriage rules before considering court action.

EchoStar is monitoring the HDTV carriage question closely.

If the FCC ultimately decides that local TV stations are entitled to HDTV carriage on DBS, DBS carriers might lack the bandwidth to pursue their local-market strategy that has proved an effective weapon against cable operators. EcohStar provides local signals in 55 markets, charging $5.99 a month. Its chief rival, DirecTV Inc., recently announced plans to go 100 local markets.

Aware that DBS might be facing local HDTV problems induced by a bandwidth shortage, cable industry leaders have recently expressed interested in ramping up carriage of local HDTV signals.

MSO leaders have said they see HDTV offering cable a competitive advantage over DBS. Over the long term, EchoStar chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen has said he plans to stay competitive with cable by rolling out a set-top that integrates local HDTV signals captured with an off-air antenna.

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