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XM Jolts NAB With Local Weather, Travel

Eddie Fritts might be feeling a little like Baghdad Bob. Just as he was declaring a great victory, the enemy was preparing to storm the city gates.

Last week, the National Association of Broadcasters president was red in the face—certainly from anger and maybe embarrassment, too—after XM Satellite Radio announced that it will inaugurate local weather and traffic channels in 21 cities this year.

XM's announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas came only two weeks after NAB triumphantly hailed a deal that ostensibly would preclude XM Satellite from offering local programming in direct competition to local stations.

XM Chief Executive Hugh Panero said XM Instant Traffic & Weather channels will roll out in 15 cities in March: New York; Los Angeles; Washington; Dallas-Ft. Worth; Chicago; Houston; Detroit; Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Francisco; Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.; Orlando, Fla.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; and St. Louis. Introductions in Boston, Atlanta, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, and San Diego will follow later this year.

The prospect of competition for local content from satellite radio providers is one NAB has battled for years. In a Dec. 23 agreement with Washington-based XM, NAB thought it had won that war. XM pledged not to use ground-based repeaters to insert local content into national feeds delivered via satellite and joined NAB in asking the FCC to codify a repeater restriction.

Then the upstart company threw broadcasters for a digital loop by announcing plans for local traffic and weather.

Fritts complained that the announcement "violates the spirit" of the Dec. 23 agreement, which, technically speaking, limits terrestrial repeaters to filling in gaps in satellite signals and bars insertion of programming not delivered to all XM listeners nationwide. "NAB will explore the legality of XM offering this program service," Fritts said.

XM officials say they never implied that local reports wouldn't be part of their business, only that repeaters wouldn't be the vehicle.

NAB has argued for years, despite XM denials, that repeaters would be used to insert news and other local programming. The prospect is a threat to customers who rely on free over-the-air broadcasting, and the government should stop it, NAB says, because hundreds if not thousands of stations could be forced out of business if they have to compete against a satellite radio taking a large chunk of their listeners.

Fritts called XM's surprise plan to deliver local programming to a national audience "an appalling back-door attempt to bypass" government's aim that satellite radio be a nationally programmed service.

But XM Vice President of Corporate Affairs Chance Patterson said his company's around-the-clock local reports will offer something entirely new rather than copying radio stations' rush-hour–focused reports. Because XM's traffic channels will include an entire region rather than just prime commuting zones, he said, they can provide real-time updates as drivers move from one end of town to another any day of the week or even drive from one part of the country to another: "There's no reason to be stuck in a traffic jam again."