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DBS Retrans Talks Down to the Wire

Facing a government-imposed retransmission-consent deadline of today (May 29) for any local-to-local broadcast station they deliver, direct-broadcast satellite companies DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. announced another string of successful negotiations for broadcasters late last week.

DirecTV remained ahead of the game last Thursday, as it reported that it had signed with 11 new broadcast-station groups. The DBS leader had already received retransmission consent from the top four broadcast companies-ABC Inc., CBS Corp., NBC and Fox Broadcasting Co.-plus Dallas-based station group A.H. Belo Corp.

CBS was the most recent network to give DirecTV the nod, 10 days ago. Sources said the companies would have likely announced the deal sooner, but CBS was waiting for its merger with Viacom Inc. to close.

As part of its deal with CBS, DirecTV agreed to add Viacom's new children's channel, Noggin, to its "Total Choice" programming package starting Thursday (June 1). The deal also extended carriage agreements for other Viacom channels, including MTV: Music Television and Nickelodeon.

EchoStar signed its second network deal last Thursday, with ABC. In return for re-transmission consent for its 10 owned-and-operated stations (EchoStar's Dish Network currently carries six of those), Dish agreed to add Disney/ABC Cable Networks' new SoapNet channel, which shows 24 hours of soap operas and dramas.

Dish already carries a number of ABC-owned networks, ranging from ESPN to Toon Disney, as well as some of the newer channels in which Disney/ABC Cable has stakes, such as The Biography Channel and History Channel International. The DBS company does not yet carry Lifetime Movie Network or Style.

An EchoStar spokesman declined comment on the ABC deal last Thursday, and he would not say whether deals with other networks or station groups were pending. The company has said that it wants to make one announcement Tuesday (May 30) about the status of all of its retransmission-consent deals.

Without official consent, Echo-Star could be forced to turn off signals for some of its local stations.

Tellus Ventures Associates president Steve Blum said he was not surprised that EchoStar was able to secure an agreement with ABC. Retransmission disputes today are the exception, rather than the rule, he added.

"It was going to happen, especially with ABC," Blum added, given the network's recent and very public skirmish with Time Warner Cable.

Industry sources expected EchoStar to successfully complete its other retransmission negotiations if not by today then soon thereafter, following mutually agreed-upon deadline extensions.

Dish also has retransmission consent for the 22 Fox owned-and-operated broadcast stations, although it currently carries them in only 17 markets. EchoStar won the retransmission consent as a condition for settling a lawsuit against Fox parent News Corp., which had earlier backed out of a deal to merge with the DBS company.

EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen has long been a proponent of delivering local broadcast stations by satellite, and the company launched such a service in a number of markets even before the government gave its official go-ahead late last year.

Today, Dish provides local-to-local service in 28 markets. EchoStar plans to add another five markets to its lineup by the end of the year.

DirecTV has launched local-to-local service in 23 markets, and it plans to expand that number to 35 by late September.

The 11 new station groups DirecTV signed last Thursday are: Allbritton Communications Co., Capitol Broadcasting Co., E.W. Scripps Co., Gannett Co. Inc., The McGraw-Hill Cos., Media General Broadcast Group, Meredith Broadcasting Group, Post-Newsweek Stations Inc., Sinclair Broadcast Group, Sunbeam Television Corp. and Tribune Co.