New rules issued by the FCC last week are likely to address
only a small minority of the roughly 2.2 million direct-broadcast satellite customers who
are threatened with losing their distant-network broadcast feeds starting later this month
and again in April.
The Federal Communications Commission adopted new grade-B
broadcast-signal-measurement standards last week, taking into account local terrain and
more realistic receiving-antenna placement.
The measurements will help to determine which DBS
subscribers are "unserved" by their local-broadcast affiliates, and therefore
eligible for distant-network feeds -- such as those delivered by PrimeTime 24 -- via
By order of a federal district court in Miami,
distant-network subscribers who signed up for the service after March 11, 1997, and who
have been deemed "served" by their local CBS and Fox stations, will be
disconnected from those feeds by Feb. 28.
Deborah Lathen, chief of the FCC's Cable Services
Bureau, said the agency requested expedited handling of its new rules, which must go into
the Federal Register before they take effect. She hopes that they will be
registered before the pending signal cutoff.
Lathen admitted that the vast majority of DBS subscribers
within so-called grade-A or grade-B signal contours will not get relief from the new
order, and that only legislative changes to the Satellite Home Viewer Act would help most
"It looks like the FCC went as far as it could go
within the confines of the Satellite Home Viewer Act," DirecTV Inc. spokesman Bob
Marsocci said. "Now, it is really up to Congress to come up with a consumer-friendly
The National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, which
serves more than 1 million DirecTV subscribers, has set up a toll-free number that
subscribers can call for information on the pending cutoff. During business hours, callers
can also be connected directly to their congressional representative.
NRTC spokesman Harry Thibedeau said that by Feb. 1, the
NRTC had received nearly 7,000 calls to the hotline, and more than 95 percent of those
callers had asked to be connected to a member of Congress.
Thibedeau added that 101,610 or more of its customers could
be cut off by the end of the month. Additionally, 240,000 NRTC subscribers could lose
their distant-network feeds by the end of April. The Miami court has ordered that
"grandfathered" subscribers -- those who had signed up for distant-network feeds
illegally prior to March 11, 1997 -- also lose their feeds at that time.
"The commission cannot assist any household that is
receiving distant-network signals illegally," the FCC said last week in a statement.
"We are pleased that the FCC recognizes the importance
of preserving localism in broadcast television, and that it has acknowledged that
PrimeTime 24 illegally signed up an overwhelming majority of its customers," said
Edward O. Fritts, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, in a
PT24 president Tom Casey was not available for comment at
DBS customers within a grade-B contour are not completely
without recourse: They can legally seek waivers from any or all of their local
broadcasters. One Web site, www.getawaiver.com, helps DBS subscribers to request
waivers online, as long as their local affiliates are registered with the service.