NCTA, NAB Battle EchoStar HDTV Legislation


The cable and broadcast industries are teaming up to undercut an HDTV plan supported by EchoStar Communications Corp. that was included in satellite legislation awaiting a vote in the Senate.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, in a letter Friday to two Senate leaders, complained that EchoStar’s plan was “a government giveaway” that would injure local TV stations and put cable at a competitive disadvantage.

The two-page letter was signed by NCTA president Robert Sachs and NAB president Edward Fritts and addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

The bill (S. 2644) would permit satellite carriers to sell out-of-town HDTV versions of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox to consumers around the country who can’t get the same programming locally with off-air antennas.

Direct-broadcast satellite providers can currently import analog versions of the networks to serve a narrow class of subscribers, but broadcasters have accused EchoStar of cheating and sued the company.

EchoStar, provider of Dish Network, claimed that the Senate bill would speed the digital transition because millions of households are unable to receive digital service from their local broadcasters.

NAB members fear that EchoStar’s plan would cost local stations viewership and hurt their advertising revenue. The NCTA is concerned that EchoStar could get access to distant digital networks without having to negotiate for the programming and offer out-of-town professional-sports events that cable systems can’t duplicate.

In their letter, the NCTA and the NAB said EchoStar’s claim that millions can’t get digital TV locally was false because the “vast majority of American households” can obtain digital TV from their local stations and because cable carriage of those TV stations is spreading.

The letter also indicated that adoption of EchoStar’s legislation would be unfair to DirecTV Inc., the DBS carrier that recently announced plans to launch new satellites capable of transmitting nearly every digital-TV station in the country by 2007.

“The only party that has not stepped up to the plate and committed resources to provide consumers with access to local digital-broadcast signals is EchoStar,” the NCTA-NAB letter said.

“The NAB and NCTA position would prevent consumers, especially in rural areas, from receiving network digital TV, which the broadcasters promised to provide at full power by 2002,” EchoStar responded in a prepared statement.

“Broadcasters have refused to invest in the technology that would provide this service, instead spending money to fight against legislation that would allow other providers to deliver this service,” the DBS provider added.

EchoStar continued, “EchoStar made the necessary investments long ago, and we currently have the capability to deliver the networks' high-definition programming everywhere across the nation via satellite. We should be allowed to accelerate adoption of digital technology through use of satellite, making high-definition TV available to the American public."