DirecTV Tackles Rural Station Concern

Seeking to address complaints by rural broadcasters, DirecTV last week told federal regulators it has begun manufacturing a tuner that will allow subscribers to pick up the over-the-air signals of local TV stations.

DirecTV sent a letter last Wednesday to the Federal Communications Commission in response to broadcast groups in Kansas, North Dakota and Texas who want the satellite provider to be required to offer local TV signals in every U.S. market by the end of the year.

DirecTV said it has started producing an ATSC, or Advanced Television Systems Committee, unit that will permit subscribers in markets where it doesn't offer local-to-local to pick up the digital signals of local TV stations. The tuners connect directly to set-top boxes.

The nation's largest satellite provider expects to have enough of the ATSC tuners to start distributing them in March, with a rollout to all affected markets by September or October.

DirecTV said it's now offering so-called local-to-local service, delivering local broadcast signals by satellite, in 144 markets, representing more than 94% of the 210 total U.S. TV households. It expects to reach 150 markets during the next few months.

DirecTV will charge subscribers a one-time fee — initially set at $50 — for the ATSC unit, which is 15% below the company's actual cost for the tuner, according to its letter.

DirecTV told the FCC it is implementing this strategy “in order to allay concerns raised by certain commenters in this proceeding.”

The Kansas Association of Broadcasters is one of the TV station groups who want the FCC to hold up Liberty Media's deal to acquire News Corp.'s stake in DirecTV unless the distributor does local-to-local across the country.

DirecTV noted that some of its set-top boxes have built-in ATSC tuners. Whether the ATSC tuner is built in, or a separate unit, subscribers will need an antenna to bring in the broadcasters' digital signals.

DirecTV will offer installation services to new subscribers at incremental labor cost beyond the cost of installing the satellite antenna; and to existing customers at a flat rate, currently $99.

“It is also worth noting that, with few exceptions, subscribers to the overwhelming majority of DirecTV's programming packages [comprising 98% of its customer base] receive a $3 discount in markets where it does not provide local signals via satellite,” DirecTV told the FCC.