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Two Too Many?

Two dishes are better than none. At least according to Congress. House members last week seemed to condone EchoStar's strategy of relegating some TV channels to second-class status, forcing customers to install a second dish if they want every local channel in their market.

Broadcasters hate the practice, which they say violates the spirit of the 1999 "carry one/carry all" law requiring satellite operators to offer all local channels in a market or none at all. EchoStar circumvents that by putting the most popular channels on a customer's primary dish and installing a second dish free for the other stations—but only on request.

Outlawing the practice is critical for broadcasters. They hope to tack a ban onto legislation reauthorizing the law governing satellite carriage of broadcast channels, which expires Dec. 31. Save for a couple of congressmen, members of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee largely ignored the spat during a hearing on renewing the carriage law.

The comments of Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) were chilling to broadcasters. He appeared to represent lawmakers' sentiments when he lauded EchoStar for putting some channels on a second dish rather than allow bandwidth constraints to eliminate local service in 30 of its 107 markets.

"A completely satisfactory answer; I applaud your approach," Boucher said to EchoStar general counsel David Moskowitz.

Even DirecTV President Eddie Hartenstein likes having the option of a second dish. DirecTV may one day be forced by spectrum limitations to carry some local channels on a second dish, he said. "You can't deny the laws of physics."

Only New York Democrat Elliot Engel took a stand against the practice. He said it puts public and Hispanic stations in his state at risk of being ignored by the majority of EchoStar subscribers. Most subscribers don't want a second dish installed, even though it comes free with their local package. "Most of [the stations'] customers are paying for channels they aren't getting. I don't believe this is fair."

For his part, WDBJ Roanoke, Va., General Manager Bob Lee said dividing stations between top- and lower-rated outlets is the real problem because customers won't install a second dish for less-popular channels. "Put them all on the second dish if you like. As long as they're in the same place, we don't care."