Ergen Could Compromise on DTV Delivery Plan

EchoStar Communications Corp. chairman Charlie Ergen told Congress Tuesday that he's open to a compromise with broadcasters over his controversial proposal to beam a handful of digital network channels from big cities into local markets across the country.

The satellite TV provider agreed, sort of, to shut off imported network channels in a market once Echostar offers that network's local affiliate. "I think that is a plan that can be endorsed," Ergen told Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.

Ergen qualified his endorsement, however, with a desire to see the fine print of any legal provision first. Ergen is asking Congress for the right to beam high-definition programming from network stations in big markets to customers around the country who can't get HD and other digital programming from local network affiliates, which may be offering digital with only low power signals or not at all.

Ergen has the backing of some public interest and tax-freedom groups who want to speed the digital rollout and get back broadcaster's analog spectrum for auction by the treasury.

Ergen wants to include that right in Congress' current reauthorization and almost certain revision of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act. Ergen was testifying in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the bill's reauthorization.

The House Commerce Committee has already passed a version of the bill without the Ergen provision.

Broadcasters oppose his plan, fearing that he will continue to offer the imported stations long after Echostar offers the local affiliates' digital signals, too. "Echostar has no intention of returning these viewers once local service is available in their markets," complained Jim Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, a small Midwestern TV group.

In the past, EchoStar has been chastised in the courts for failing to pull the plug on distant delivery of analog network signals in markets where it shouldn't.