Small Ops May Get Help … from Dish

Albuquerque, N.M. -- In an ironic twist, small cable operators are being given the chance to turn to their archrival, EchoStar Communications Corp., to deliver signals for local TV stations to their cable systems.

Turner Media Group is marketing a service that will use EchoStar’s satellites, which deliver local-into-local to its own subscribers, to also transport signals for those local broadcasters to cable companies. Turner -- no relation to Turner Broadcasting System Inc. -- would be able to deliver stations in more than 160 markets via EchoStar’s Dish Network platform.

Turner Media isn’t the only company with a local-into-local broadcast-transport solution to bring TV-station signals, via satellite, to cable systems. Comcast Corp.’s Comcast Media Center is offering a similar option to cable operators that are unable to receive local broadcast affiliates clearly or that have retransmission consent to receive a distant broadcast signal, according to panelists at the National Cable Television Cooperative winter educational conference here Tuesday.

”Many of you have headends well outside of the range of the broadcast signals that you provide to your customers,” Scott Abbott, the co-op’s vice president of programming and national accounts, said during the NCTC’s “Content Transport and Local-Into-Local” panel. “Those of you who are in that situation know that there is a great deal of expense and effort involved getting quality broadcast signals to those headends.”

The NCTC has been talking with Turner Media about doing a master affiliation agreement with its members for the local transport service that uses EchoStar, according to Abbott,

But no deal is done yet, and Abbott warned that the NCTC has reservations about and isn’t endorsing Turner Media’s local transport service, with particular issues with current contract cable operators would have to sign.

Turner Media didn’t have a representative present on the panel. But Abbott said that under the current contract for the service, EchoStar could suspend the transport service without any reason without any notice.

“It is EchoStar’s agreement, and it looks like it was personally written by Charlie Ergen [EchoStar’s chairman],” Abbott said. “Charlie might get out of the wrong side of bed one morning and decide to turn off all the cable operators … It’s balanced very heavily in favor of Dish and less so in favor of you all.”

The transport fees for Turner Media’s service would range from 55 cents for up to two channels per subscriber, per month to $1.15 for five or more channels. But the NCTC would likely get a better price than that rate card if it strikes a deal with Turner Media.

So far, CMC is marketing a Rocky Mountain Multiplex, which includes eight Denver TV stations, and a New Mexico Multiplex, which transports signals for six Albuquerque stations, account director for affiliate services Allison Olien said.

“Customers are very happy with the picture quality,” she added, pointing out that the service makes cable more competitive with direct-broadcast satellite, which provides very clear digital signals for local TV stations.

CMC is considering adding a Spanish-language TV station to its New Mexico Multiplex, and it is investigating creating these regional multiplexes in additional markets, including Portland, Ore.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Dallas, according to Olien.

She and Abbott stressed that cable operators would have to have retransmission-consent deals in place with the local TV stations that they want transported by CMC or Turner Media.