DirecTV Wins a Must-Carry Dispute

A TV station in the Houston market that mailed a letter one day late was denied mandatory access to DirecTV Inc.'s satellite system for the next four years, according to a Federal Communications Commission ruling last Wednesday.

KNWS-TV — the broadcast home of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros — mailed its must-carry election to DirecTV on July 2.

DirecTV denied the request because FCC rules required the letter to be postmarked by July 1. Johnson Broadcasting Inc. owns KNWS.

In September, Johnson filed a complaint with the FCC saying that because July 1 was a Sunday, it had an additional day to send the letter by certified mail to DirecTV.

In the decision, the FCC said KNWS had eight months' notice that the election deadline was July 1. The commission added that when it establishes a filing deadline with a specific date, it does not permit any grace period for Sundays and holidays.

The FCC said it was important for it to adhere to the deadline in order to provide certainty to TV stations and direct-broadcast satellite carriers, and to avoid having to act as a referee on numerous complaints about whether the deadlines had been met.

Under the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999, DBS carriers are required, upon request, to carry every local TV station in a market where they have elected to carry any local broadcast signal.

Because the "carry one, carry all" mandate takes effect Jan. 1, 2002, the FCC ordered TV stations to make their must-carry elections by July 1, 2001.

KNWS is licensed to Katy, Texas, and operates in the Houston market, where DirecTV is offering the affiliates of the four major networks.

Because the station elected must-carry, KNWS does not have the option now to elect retransmission consent, which would involve negotiating carriage with DirecTV.

KNWS could appeal the Cable Services Bureau-issued decision to the four FCC commissioners. But the commission rarely reverses a bureau decision.

KNWS could also sue DirecTV in federal court or could claim that DirecTV faces copyright liability for failing to carry all local TV stations in the Houston market after Jan. 1.

"I am disappointed by this decision. I am sure my client will be appealing it," said KNWS attorney Arthur Belendiuk. "I just don't know how you are supposed to send a letter by certified mail on a Sunday."

FCC rules were less than clear about the treatment of Sundays and holidays Belendiuk claimed. Because of that confusion, the FCC should not impose a draconian penalty for a one-day violation, he said.

The FCC has received dozens of DBS must-carry complaints from TV stations. KNWS' was the first one resolved by the commission.

Johnson has another complaint pending against DirecTV in Dallas. DirecTV rejected the must-carry election there because KLDT also sent an election letter July 2.