Local TV gets Shield from DBS

EchoStar and DirecTV over the next four months must begin cutting off many subscribers from some network, syndicated and sports programming broadcast by TV superstations.

The FCC last week put in place rules that implement last year's Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act, which paved the way for satellite carriers to offer local network affiliates.

The trade-off for satellite carriers was that they agreed to block signals from distant markets to viewers with the means of receiving the same programming from local network affiliates and to transmit local sports events that broadcast stations in that market are barred from airing.

Last week's non-duplication rules cover network and exclusive syndication programming offered by the six "superstations": KTLA-TV Los Angeles, WPIX-TV New York, WWOR-TV New York, KWGN-TV Denver, WSBK-TV Boston and wgn-
tv Chicago. Under the new non-duplication rules, local TV stations may demand that satellite carriers black out any network or syndicated programming from superstations that duplicate their programming. The blackout requirement applies only to viewers located within specific zip codes served by the local broadcaster.

Satellite broadcasters covering national footprints complain that the technical complexity of blacking out specific programs in a limited number of markets may make it impossible for them to carry some shows and games.

Although Congress ordered the FCC generally to apply long-standing cable non-duplication rules to the satellite industry, more- lenient rules should have been passed to account for satellite carriers' nationwide coverage, said EchoStar attorney Pantelis Michalopoulos. "The commission didn't go nearly far enough to recognize the difference in difficulty blacking out programming from nationally distributed media as opposed to a local headend."

DirecTV officials said they had less of a problem with the rules because they carry only one superstation. Broadcasters were evaluating the rules late last week and would not comment.

The new rules do not apply to any distant signals other than the superstations. When satellite carriers import other signals from distant markets, the FCC will apply long-standing rules that allow service only to viewers who can't receive an acceptable, or "Grade B," signal.

Blackout requirements also apply to sporting events when teams and leagues forbid broadcasts in local markets. Blackouts are generally ordered in markets when home games aren't sold out.

The sports-blackout rule applies to network programming as well as superstations. Satellite carriers are barred from airing games carried by superstations or networks if a sports team or league's exclusive distribution rights also bar the local broadcaster from airing the event.

The sports leagues are unhappy that the FCC did not extend the blackout rule to stations from distant markets, not just from network affiliates and superstations. FCC officials, however, said Congress did not ask for limits on other stations, and other stations are currently being imported from distant markets.