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Hedlund hits SATV ops on must carry

ALTV President Jim Hedlund blasted satellite TV operators Monday for their legal challenge of the satellite must-carry law. "The satellite industry cannot be trusted," Hedlund told ALTV members and a couple dozen Washington policymakers in Las Vegas yesterday for the trade group's annual conference. "Broadcasters are learning that the hard and expensive way."

Hedlund's gripe is that DirecTV, Echostar and the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association agreed to the must-carry provision of the 1999 satellite TV law, but then turned around and challenged it in federal court as a violation of their First Amendment rights. "The satellite cabal has gone back on its word," Hedlund said.

The satellite TV law permits satellite operators to carry local broadcast signals within their over-the-air markets. But, starting next January, its must-carry provision kicks in. It requires operators that carry one broadcast signal in a market to carry all signals in the market.

The local broadcast service has accelerated satellite TV growth. DirecTV currently counts about 9.5 million subs; EchoStar, about 5.5 million. But having to carry all signals in markets where they now carry only a handful would force them to cut back on the number of markets where they offer local service, the satellite operators claim.
The operators argue that the must-carry rules violate their First Amendment rights by forcing them to carry signals they don't want to.

Hedlund also criticized cable operators for their continuing opposition to FCC rules requiring them to carry broadcasters' digital TV signals. The operators claim that they don't have enough channels to carry the digital broadcast signals, Hedlund said. Yet, he said, they seem to have room for networks they own and for new services like high-speed Internet access and telephony.

The government would not tolerate a telephone company's refusal to provide service to a new subdivision, Hedlund said. It should not tolerate cable's refusal to provide a service to further the public interest.

Some policymakers, including the last two FCC chairmen, Bill Kennard and Reed Hundt, believed that TV broadcasters were "dinosaurs" and would soon be overtaken by new media, Hedlund said. Well, he said, many of the dotcoms are now gone, and broadcasting is as strong as ever. "Broadcasters won't be slinking off into the La Brea tar pits any time soon." - Harry Jessell