Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced legislation Wednesday that should set the stage for a massive lobbying battle between broadcasters and satellite carriers over distribution of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox programming in HDTV format.
The bill extends the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999 (SHVIA) for another five years, including a provision that allows direct-broadcast satellite carriers to import network signals to serve just those subscribers who can't get their local affiliates with off-air antennas.
EchoStar chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen has said he wants the law changed so that he can import HDTV network signals and distribute them to anyone who can't get local HDTV signals, even if subscribers' antennas can pick up local affiliates' analog signals.
Ergen is pressing the issue because he claims that DBS can stimulate demand for HDTV in markets where TV stations have been slow to transition to digital or are taking advantage of Federal Communications Commission rules that allow digital-TV stations to operate at low power.
"[The bill] is a good start of the debate of the terms by which the SHVIA could benefit the American public," EchoStar spokesman Steve Caulk said.
National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts released a statement indicating that broadcasters will fight DBS importation of HDTV signals.
"Our ultimate goal is to see ‘local-to-local’ extended to all television stations in all 210 markets, and we strongly oppose attempts by satellite providers to bypass carriage of local stations," Fritts said.
News Corp. -- which now controls DirecTV Inc., in addition to 35 TV stations -- has a foot in both camps. Although News Corp. quit the NAB several years ago over an unrelated regulatory issue, it was unclear Thursday whether chairman Rupert Murdoch would take sides in the fight.
Meanwhile, Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc. filed a report with the FCC Thursday claiming that EchoStar and DirecTV, together or separately, could offer every local TV station in the country in HDTV format.
A DBS source called the Capitol plan expensive and unrealistic. EchoStar has told the FCC it does not have the capacity to retransmit hundreds of TV stations in HDTV, which explains its support for sending a just few ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox feeds to the whole country.