Senators Attempt To Save Distant Signals

With satellite operator EchoStar facing a Dec. 1 cut-off of all the distant network TV station signals it delivers to some 800,000 customers, a pair of Senators have introduced a bill that would block court action mandating the cut-off.

A court had ruled that EchoStar delivered distant TV station signals to customers who could receive an acceptable signal from their local affiliate, in violation of FCC rules. Because the court said it did not have confidence in EchoStar's ability to determine which subs were and were not eligible to receive distant signals, it ordered them to pull all the signals.

Senators Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy Thursday offered a bill to "ensure that certain eligible EchoStar DISH Network customers that are able to receive distant network signals under current law will continue to receive them," and asked the Congress to act immediately.

It would have to since it is planning to exit for the Thanksgiving break at weeks end, not to return until Dec. 5.

“Without distant signals, many satellite subscribers around the country will not be able to watch a network affiliate, which is a primary source of news, sports and entertainment for many,” said Allard.

EchoStar had sought a delay of implementation of the court order, pointing to the 800,000-plus customers that would have their signals yanked and to a multimillion-dollar settlement it had hammered out with most of the affected stations.

Not surprisingly, EchoStar praised the bill:

“Today, Senators Leahy, Allard, Inouye, Snowe, Rockefeller, Byrd, Salazar, Clinton, Roberts, Pryor, Enzi, and Ensign stood up for American consumers by introducing S. 4067, the ‘Satellite Consumer Protection Act of 2006,' the company said in a statement."EchoStar commends this tremendous bipartisan effort to enable innocent consumers to continue to receive distant network channels, particularly subscribers who live in rural areas and markets where there is no local broadcaster. "Unfortunately, because of a court ruling that requires EchoStar to stop transmitting these signals by December 1, 2006 and the imminent adjournment of Congress, it appears that innocent consumers will lose their network signals before Congress can act on this important legislation.”

In a statement, the National Association of Broadcasters, which opposes the delay, wasn't mincing words. "NAB strongly opposes a bail - out by Congress of a habitual copyright infringer that has skimmed millions of dollars infringing copyrights and violating the law on a nationwide basis for eight years or more," said spokesman Dennis Wharton. "The fact is consumers will not lose access to broadcast network programming when the court decision goes into effect. Consumers have a variety of easy options to receive broadcast network programming."

Those include cable and satellite competitor, DirecTV.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.