Reps. Seek EchoStar Compromise

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A few House lawmakers from rural districts are trying to broker a compromise to ensure that more than a half-million EchoStar Communications subscribers continue to receive out-of-market feeds of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox programming.

Under a May Federal Appeals Court ruling, EchoStar is facing an injunction that would deny it the right to provide distant network signals to anyone in the United States. As of April 2002, EchoStar sold distant signals to 1.2 million customers, and about one-half were legally ineligible to buy the programming. But the court's ruling apparently would also require denial of service to the 600,000 customers who were legally receiving the programming.

The fate of EchoStar’s eligible subscribers has gained the attention of Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) and Charles Bass (R-N.H.), who have asked EchoStar and hundreds of network affiliates to reach a settlement.

“We all represent rural areas, and we have thousands of constituents who are eligible to receive out-of-market signals. They pass the test,” Boucher said.

EchoStar and DirecTV are allowed to transmit a network signal from New York and beam it around the country, but only customers with inadequate, over-the-air antenna reception are permitted to purchase the programming.

Broadcasters battled EchoStar in court because they want viewers to watch their local affiliates with local commercials.

Boucher and the other lawmakers convened a Capitol Hill meeting last Thursday, bringing the key parties together so that they understood the stakes involved from the lawmakers’ perspective. DirecTV is not involved in the current dispute.

The lawmakers are concerned about a harsh public backlash if the eligible customers are denied service. “You would have a massive letter-writing campaign to Congress from the eligible subscribers who are no longer getting their signals, who do not want to undergo the annoyance and expense of having to switch to another satellite provider or just prefer EchoStar for some reason,” Boucher said.

A compromise would require EchoStar and DirecTV to commit to provide local TV signals in all 210 markets within a certain period of time. EchoStar’s eligible customers would not be cut off. But some broadcasters want the deal to require EchoStar to pay restitution and to agree to migrate distant network subscribers to a local signal package.

“Our goal is to avoid disruption to consumers,” EchoStar spokeswoman Kathie Gonzalez said. “We very much appreciate the efforts of members [of Congress] to protect their constituents and facilitate the process.”

Boucher -- who did not say how long the parties had to reach a deal -- said he expects all involved to bargain in good faith.

“I am very optimistic,” Boucher said of a settlement. “The meeting achieved exactly what we wanted it to achieve. It showed to both sides that there is congressional interest.”

Legislating a compromise, he added, was not being considered, but that could change if a stalemate were to drag on. “If one party or the other proves recalcitrant here, I can imagine a legislative effort that would be joined by houses [of Congress],” Boucher said.