Motion Could Mean Quick End to Case


WASHINGTON -The direct-broadcast satellite industry is looking to score a quick court knockout of a law designed to require carriage of all local TV signals in a market.

The Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association filed a motion last week in federal court in Alexandria, Va., urging the judge to decide the constitutionality of DBS must-carry without a trial-a step that would sheer off months of litigation.

SBCA-joined by DirectTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.-is suing the federal government, challenging the 1999 law as an unconstitutional violation of the First and Fifth Amendments.

Starting Jan. 1, 2002, the law will require DBS carriers to carry all local TV stations in any market where they carry even just one local TV station.

EchoStar, for example, currently carries local TV stations in 33 markets-primarily affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. When the must-carry law takes effect, instead of carrying 132 local TV signals in those markets, the company will have to carry 478. EchoStar has the technical capacity to carry 500 channels.

The DBS industry also has filed a briefing schedule with U.S. District Court Judge James Cacheris that calls for oral arguments on its motion for a summary judgment on Feb. 9. If that date is accepted, Cacheris could rule on the motion before the end of April.

National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said he is "confident the motion will be denied." NAB is not a defendant in the case, but is seeking to intervene over the objections of SBCA. Cacheris also is considering SBCA's request to limit NAB's involvement in the case.

Broadcasters maintain the law is constitutional because, unlike cable operators, DBS carriers are not required to carry any local TV signals and when they do carry local TV signals, they can do so under a government-granted license that is free of any copyright royalty payments. TV stations maintain that must-carry does not apply to the extent that a DBS carrier provides local TV stations after obtaining the necessary clearances from copyright owners.

From a competitive standpoint, broadcasters said free over-the-air broadcasting would be harmed if hundreds of local TV stations were denied carriage by satellite carriers. Must-carry, they added, prevents DBS carriers from cherry-picking local TV markets.

Under the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act, which contains the DBS must-carry mandate, the Federal Communications Commission has until Nov. 29 to adopt rules implementing must-carry, but the rules are expected to track with the statutory mandates.