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DBS Rivals Square Off At SBCA Event

Last week's 1999 Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association (SBCA) show should have had its name changed to The Clash of Titans for the verbal fistfight rival CEOs Eddy Hartenstein of DirecTv and Charlie Ergen of EchoStar had over their proposals for new home satellite legislation.

Ergen frequently slammed DirecTv for its compromise agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters on a package of suggestions they will make to Congress for drafting new federal guidelines. Both satellite systems are looking for the legal right to retransmit network and local TV programming via satellite.

Ergen and others in the industry are troubled that the agreement drops non-discriminatory retransmission consent provisions that would ensure satellite TV services access to network programming on an equal basis with cable companies.

It would also codify the standing Federal Communications Commission's ruling on the Grade B intensity standard, and it would make it illegal for people who live in so-called Grade B signal contours to receive out-of-market network TV channels.

In a press conference, Hartenstein acknowledged that the agreement wasn't perfect, but he said it provides a fast solution for allowing satellite providers to offer local network TV channels to local markets.

Hartenstein said, "I believe every day satellite TV is unable to carry local channels is another day that satellite TV cannot compete with cable."

But Ergen accused Hartenstein of being "disingenuous" in his remarks, adding that because DirecTv is owned by General Motors, which is one of the nation's largest television advertisers, broadcasters will be willing to deal with DirecTv to the exclusion of others. He said Congress needs to see a unified satellite industry and added that the SBCA, not DirecTv should have brokered an agreement with the NAB.

Ergen, meanwhile, continued to go after DirecTv by announcing an extension of its Primestar Bounty Program to August 31. Under the program, Primestar subscribers, who were recently acquired by DirecTv, are offered a free EchoStar system and six free months of programming valued at $19.99 per month for switching over to the Dish Network instead of DirecTv.

In other news, DirecTv announced several programming exclusives designed to make the satellite platform more attractive to potential subscribers. Starting July 30, DirecTv and the Action Adventure Network will premiere the first episode of a pay-per-view series based on John Landis and Leslie Belzberg's film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

DirecTv also announced a new promotional offer giving new subscribers three free months of its Total Choice Platinum programming tier when they register for the NFL Sunday Ticket package at the $159 per season rate.

Meanwhile, DirecTv parent Hughes Electronics announced it has taken a 4% equity stake in Interactive TV system developer Wink Communications. The satellite provider expects Wink's interactive technology will be available "in at least 4 million DirecTv system receivers by the end of 2001." Both Thomson and Hughes Network Systems will build Wink-enabled receivers.

On the HDTV front, DirecTv said it would begin offering the East Coast feed of HBO's high-definition channel to consumers beginning August 1.

EchoStar, meanwhile, showed an HDTV adapter it plans to sell later this year. The adapter connects to the data port on the back of the model 5000 IRD and will enable passing through an undecoded HDTV signal from the Dish Network to an integrated HDTV set or set-top decoder through an RF connection. The adapter will sell for about $300.

Thomson unveiled its generation 4.5 IRD line for the DirecTv platform.

Chief among a host of new capabilities in the new devices is local-into-local TV reception. The capability will be found in two models, DS4440RE and DRD480RE, to ship in October at suggested retail prices of $399 and $349. The DRD480RE is billed as a replacement for the existing Dolby Digital-capable IRD. The stand-alone receiver passes through a 5.1-channel digital surround sound signal to an external Dolby Digital decoder.

The DS4440RE is a new complete system, bundling the Picture Guide-enhanced program guide with a video window, onscreen caller ID, and a new (DSA8900E) 18"x 24" dish. This will be outfitted with dual LNBs capable of receiving both standard DirecTv and new local-into-local channel services from satellites parked in two different orbital slots. Both units also incorporate circuitry to receive Wink-enhanced broadcasting services, which will provide users with various interactive applications on the channels of participating networks.

Dovetailing with DirecTv's announced plan to offer the East Coast feed of the HBO HD channel to consumers beginning August 1, Dave Spomer, Thomson DBS product management VP said Thomson will ready to ship its integrated HDTV sets on that date. The TVs, which are DirecTv standard, HD and local-TV ready, will require the 18"x 24" dish to receive HD services and standard DirecTv services from two different orbital slots.

In addition to its HDTV adapter, EchoStar took the wraps off a number of new products designed to expand the capabilities of the satellite service.

For interactive applications, EchoStar showed IRDs in its 3800 and 4700 model series that will provide a number of two-way applications from Wink-competitor OpenTv. Services include e-commerce, programming information listings and TV-based e-commerce through broadcasts carried over the Dish Network.

EchoStar said it will add a new program recording service to its DishPlayer integrated WebTV/Dish IRD set-top box. Through a software download, and a $4.95 per month subscription service, the current DishPlayer will record up between four and five hours of programming on an internal hard drive. An upgraded version of the product with a larger hard drive will record up to eight hours, when it ships later this year.

See the next issue of TWICE and the web site for more SBCA coverage.

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