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Satellite Firms Fight Must-Carry

ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- DirecTV, EchoStar and the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association have teamed up to sue the FCC and the U.S. Copyright Office to overturn a provision in the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (SHVIA) that imposes must-carry requirements on satellite systems that offer local TV channels.

The suit, which was filed in an Eastern Virginia Federal District Court, claims the ruling violates First Amendment rights of satellite carriers by dictating the programming they carry.

The satellite operators, though happy with many of the provisions in the SHVIA law passed by Congress last year, said the must-carry requirement added at the urging of broadcasters will make it impossible to serve many moderately sized markets, such as Hartford, Conn., or Richmond, Va.

The satellite operators said they do not have enough space on their satellite transponders to carry every major and minor broadcast station across the country and still offer their customers a compelling lineup of basic and premium cable network channels, pay-per-view movies and new HDTV services.

They argue that cable operators are not required to carry all broadcast stations in each market, and satellite providers should be given the same consideration if they are to compete effectively with new digital cable platforms that permit many more channels of TV service than analog systems.

Under the SHVIA guidelines, satellite operators won the right to carry local TV channels for delivery into local markets if they received the consent (often at a price) of each broadcast station. In addition, the satellite operators are required to carry all off-air stations in the markets they serve with local channels. Currently, both DirecTV and EchoStar must comply with that ruling by January 1, 2002.

The DBS operators say that many of the stations they will be required to add are of little interest to the majority of viewers. These are typically independent stations that are not aligned with major networks, often carrying TV shopping channels already provided through a national feed on the satellite systems.

Under the current law, the satellite operators will have to carry 23 stations each in Los Angeles and New York, compared to the four network affiliates (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and WB) they would like to continue offering. Adding the additional stations will prevent many smaller markets from receiving local TV coverage via satellite, giving cable monopolies an added advantage in those regions, the satellite interests said.

"Satellite must-carry is a major roadblock to the continued rollout of local channels in areas outside the largest markets and will deprive Americans in midsize and smaller markets of the local television over their satellite systems," stated SBCA president Chuck Hewitt. "The marketplace should decide what programming satellite companies carry, not a federal mandate."