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Capital Watch

Promises, Promises

EchoStar's Charlie Ergen says he wants to broker a compromise with broadcasters. The issue is his controversial plan to beam a handful of digital network channels from big cities into local markets. DirecTV agreed to shut off imported network channels in any market once EchoStar offers the networks' local affiliate. "This is a plan that can be endorsed," he told Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) during a hearing last week on renewing EchoStar's and DirecTV's rights to offer broadcast channels. Legislation reauthorizing the satellite carrier's rights is expected to pass Congress next month. Ergen qualified his endorsement by demanding to see the legal fine print of any provision before committing.

He is also asking Congress for the right to beam HD programming from network stations in big markets to customers nationwide who can't get it and other digital programming from local affiliates.

Despite his peace offering, broadcasters still oppose his plan. Imported network feeds eat away at a local stations' ratings, they say. Moreover, they add, Ergen has routinely ignored legal obligations to shut off imported analog network signals to hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Where's the Beef?

The FCC is back in the judgment business. In the next few weeks, the agency will study whether stations are providing enough local news, political coverage, and other specialty programming for their viewers. But Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps fears that the inquiry will be all talk and no teeth.

Copps is unhappy that FCC Chairman Michael Powell isn't proposing any tough new rules but only wants public and industry opinions on stations' track records. "The FCC ought to do more than just ask preliminary questions," he told the Future of Music Coalition last week. Specifically, Copps wants the FCC to set public-interest obligations, such as more political coverage and kids programming, for digital stations.

Surrender Your Analog

New York City Police Department's top technology officer is endorsing the FCC's developing plan to speed the digital transition. Thomas Gangone, deputy chief for technology and systems development, says speeding broadcasters' switch to an all-digital operation is essential. Police, fire departments, and other emergency agencies need TV stations' old analog channels immediately. Without the FCC's plan to reclaim the channels in 2009, no one can predict when broadcasters will surrender them, he said in an April 28 letter to the FCC. The 2009 target, he said, brings "reality and balance" to the DTV transition by providing a reasonable time frame for stations and setting a date for expanding public-safety channels.

Border Dispute

XM Satellite Radio officials are getting a lesson in the power of broadcasters' lobbying. Executives at the pay-radio service were surprised that broadcasters' bid to shut down the company's local traffic and weather reports is being taken seriously in Washington. The FCC announced that it will review NAB complaints that XM's local reports violate the spirit—and possibly the letter—of a law authorizing satellite radio as a national-only service. The FCC wants public comment on the impact of XM's local reports, which cover 17 markets but are beamed to all 1.68 million subscribers. There's also a House bill that would order the FCC to investigate whether XM service jeopardizes radio stations' survival by cutting into their audiences. XM insists its service is well within satellite radio's mission.