Washington -- The broadcasting and satellite industries
called a truce two weeks ago, under election-year pressure from politicians fearing that
their dispute over distant-network distribution would anger thousands of home-dish owners
just weeks before the Nov. 3 vote.
The debate now shifts to the Federal Communications
Commission, which is being asked to adopt rules making it more difficult for TV stations
to challenge the rights of scores of dish owners to purchase distant-network signals.
Congress could make the FCC's job easier by passing
legislation in the next few weeks, but the chances of that happening are remote, at best,
since Capitol Hill lawmakers are planning to return home to campaign Oct. 9.
Tom Casey, president of PT24, said his goal is to ensure
that any FCC rules that are adopted would protect current PT24 subscribers against
termination of service.
Broadcasters, however, want FCC rules to apply
retroactively, so that PT24 is punished for copyright infringement.
"We don't think that we should reward people who
break the law," National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
Under the agreement -- announced Sept. 18 by the NAB and
the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, after eight weeks of bickering
-- PT24 may continue to provide distant-network signals to 800,000 dish-owners who signed
up for the service during a 16-month span ending July 15, 1998.
But on Feb. 28, 1999, PT24 is required to cut off service
to those among the 800,000 who are illegally receiving distant-network signals under the
Satellite Home Viewer Act.
Casey said last week that it was possible that all 800,000
will lose access to CBS and Fox, although it was unclear whether any would lose access to
ABC and NBC. The four networks are sold in a package by either PT24 or its distributors,
which include DirecTv Inc. and seven C-band companies.
Casey's uncertainty has to be resolved by Nov. 15,
because the agreement calls for PT24 to submit a list on that date of dish-owners who will
lose network service.
Under the SHVA, an illegal subscriber is one who can
receive a local-network affiliate signal of "grade-B intensity" using a
conventional outdoor rooftop antenna, regardless of whether the picture is clear or snowy.
Broadcasters said the SHVA is an objective measure for the
purpose of protecting the exclusivity rights of local-network affiliates in a particular
But PT24 and the SBCA asserted that the test is inadequate,
because some dish-owners -- particularly those located at the periphery of a market -- can
receive a signal of grade-B intensity, but cannot receive a decent picture.
"Indeed, at the contour boundary, approximately
one-half of the households cannot receive a grade-B signal," FCC chairman William
Kennard said in a Sept. 4 letter to Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain
(R-Ariz.) and House Commerce Committee chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.).
Broadcasters won a preliminary injunction in July from
Federal District Court Judge Lenore C. Nesbitt in Miami, who designated Oct. 8 as the
That close to the elections, Nesbitt's date turned out
to be politically untenable, leading to the privately negotiated Feb. 28 date, which puts
the dispute beyond the vote and the Super Bowl, which Fox is televising Jan. 31.
The cutoff applies only to Fox and CBS signals, and only to
subscribers who signed up between March 11, 1997 (the date that the suit was filed), and
July 10, 1998 (the date that Nesbitt granted the preliminary injunction).
"We think that the vast majority [of the 800,000] were
illegal hookups," Wharton said.
Wharton added that broadcasters will use the lists
submitted by PT24 as a tool to respond to dish-owners who complain about service
"In the rare instance where a customer clearly cannot
get a picture, we are more than willing and able to grant waivers," Wharton said.