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NAB, NCTA Take On EchoStar

Broadcasters and cable operators are perpetual rivals, but the industries' biggest trade groups are teaming up to take on EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Charlie Ergen.

Friday, the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association asked leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the DBS provider's bid for legislation giving satellite TV more power to import network digital TV programming from far-way markets into local communities. They are already allowed to import distant analog signals to unserved areas, though the definition of unserved customer has been a bone of contention.

Legislation pushed by Echostar would "constitute a government giveaway to a single company--Echostar--and will harm localism and competition, two paramount government policies," NAB and NCTA said in a Sept. 24 letter to Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, V-Vt. The two men are, respectively, the chairman of the committee and its ranking Democrat.

Echostar is pushing a so-called "digital white area" bill that would let DBS providers import digital signals of the broadcast networks to any household that doesn't get a digital signal from the local affiliate. Once the home is served by the local station's digital channel, the DBS company would be required to carry the local channel rather than the imported one.

Ergen says the bill would speed the digital transition because more customers would have access to DTV programming and, therefore, more reason to buy digital sets. He also contends that stations have dragged their feet on delivering digital by broadcasting at power levels well below their maximum permitted range.

Broadcasters counter that Ergen has reneged on promises to drop imported analog channels and there is no reason to believe he'll return digital customers either.