Liberals Moan: 'Put Us On DirecTV'

Washington— Liberal-leaning TV executives are criticizing the Federal Communications Commission and direct- broadcast satellite companies for undermining a law that was intended to promote a diverse range of programming on satellite TV.

The 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act mandated that DBS companies provide at least 4 percent of their bandwidth to noncommercial educational channels at relatively cheap rates.

Several years after the FCC implemented the law, liberals said, Hughes Electronics Corp.'s DirecTV — and, to a lesser extent, EchoStar Communications Inc.'s Dish Network — have been allowed to circumvent the central goal of the public-service set-aside: to give discounted access to a diverse range of traditionally underrepresented viewpoints.

Many if not most of the channels that the two DBS services carry to satisfy their public-service obligations are run by well-financed Christian organizations that traditionally espouse conservative views.

"This whole right-wing religious thing, I think, is a pretty sorry way to implement" the law, said John Schwartz, the president of Free Speech TV, an unabashedly liberal channel based in Boulder, Colo.

Free Speech TV is carried on Dish, but DirecTV has repeatedly rejected the channel's carriage applications.

"I think that their overall selection of channels tends to include a lot of conservative religious programmers," Schwartz said of DirecTV. "I don't think they necessarily have balanced programs."

No balance required

In fact, the FCC does not require them to.

While acknowledging that Congress intended the public-service requirement to guarantee "a diverse core" of satellite-TV programming, the FCC in 1998 specifically rejected calls to actually require diversity. The agency gave DBS providers full discretion over which channels to air, as long as they are noncommercial outlets that have "educational" goals.

Schwartz and others said they are not surprised by the relatively homogenous landscape that has remained since the FCC implemented the law.

"We've reaped the unfortunate reward of the FCC [rules]," said Cheryl Leanza, the deputy director of the Media Access Project, a telecommunications law firm in Washington that had lobbied the FCC to create an independent panel to select the public-service programming for the DBS providers. "Putting control of the set-aside in the hands of the DBS operators undermines the purpose of the set-aside."

DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci would not say why the company carries so many religious channels while rejecting Free Speech TV's applications.

"It's our prerogative to accept or decline carriage of a program," he said. "The [religious] programming is very popular."

DirecTV chooses which public-service channels to carry based on a variety of factors, said Marsocci, including the quality of programming, its nationwide appeal and whether the channel would be "duplicative" of other channels.

DirecTV's choice of noncommercial channels, however, seems at least somewhat duplicative.

Six of the 12 channels that it carries to meet its public-service quota telecast Christian-influenced programming. A seventh channel, BYU TV, is run by the Mormon Church's Brigham Young University and airs religious programs several times a day.

EchoStar also carries at least six Christian-oriented channels, plus BYU TV. Only one of those — Good Samaritan Network — counts toward the public-service quota. The majority of Dish's public-service channels are run by universities or other academic organizations.

"We have the most diverse programming in the nation," EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin said.

Colby May, a Washington attorney who represents the Trinity Broadcasting Network, one of several Christian channels on both DirecTV and Dish, described TBN as promoting an "orthodox Christian world view," although he said it strives to be non-ideological.

About 95 percent of Americans are Christian, he said, "and so there certainly shouldn't be anything surprising" about the fact that DirecTV and Dish each carry several Christian channels.

"Simply because somebody else already has a viewpoint out in the marketplace doesn't mean there's too much of something," May said. "There isn't too much religious programming. I think the religious programming that's out there is remarkably diverse."

Neither DirecTV nor Dish are entirely lacking in liberal voices. WorldLink TV, which airs documentaries and news programs from around the world, is carried on both DBS services.

Kim Spencer, president of the San Francisco nonprofit organization that runs WorldLink, said he agreed that the public-service requirement has not done much to enhance diversity.

"I think there should be a lot more programs," said Spencer, who has urged DirecTV to start carrying Free Speech TV. "I think the intent of the law was to create new channels, not just carry ones that already exist and that happen to be run by nonprofits."

DBS providers are not entirely to blame for the dearth of diversity, Spencer and others said. The high costs of starting a noncommercial TV channel leaves DBS providers with a limited number of public-service channels from which to choose, they said.

"It's a structural problem in that there are no other ways to finance noncommercial television other than being a university," Spencer said.

Stick it to cable

One solution, he said, would be for the FCC to require cable companies to abide by a similar public-service quota.

"If this same law applied to cable … instead of reaching a maximum of one-fifth of homes, there would be a potential of reaching all homes," Spencer said. "If we could reach all the homes, we would be much more financially viable."

This isn't Schwartz's first fight over media access. In 1995, he pulled his liberal 90s Channel — a precursor to Free Speech TV — off Tele-Communications Inc. cable systems because of an "astronomical" increase in TCI's fee for leased-access channel space to reach 600,000 customers.

Schwartz claimed TCI used the rate increase to "throw us off" the system for political reasons. The 90s Channel appealed to the FCC for help, but the agency decided that the MSO did nothing wrong.

States News Service