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EchoStar's Ergen Pressures DTV Stragglers

10/08/2001 02:00:00 AM Eastern

EchoStar Chairman Charlie Ergen is putting pressure on TV network affiliates to allow customers of his DISH Network to view out-of-market network HDTV programming in territories not being served with comparable over-the-air signals.

On September 20, Ergen sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell suggesting that network affiliates who have failed to meet digital-TV rollout deadlines be denied extension waivers for their digital licenses if they refuse viewers to take comparable out-of-market H/DTV network signals from satellite providers.

According to FCC guidelines, all 1,300 commercial TV stations in the U.S. must be transmitting digital channels by this May, but for a variety of reasons almost a third of those stations are expected to miss that deadline and seek extensions from the FCC.

Specifically, EchoStar has asked the FCC to deny waivers to the affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox television networks unless those stations agree to allow EchoStar to provide out-of-market digital TV channels (typically New York or Los Angeles network broadcasts) in areas where the rollout has stalled.

"In other words," Ergen told Powell, "if the broadcaster will not provide consumers with a digital signal, we will."

EchoStar currently carries H/DTV channels of CBS stations in New York and Los Angeles markets, and would like to make them available to any subscribers who cannot receive CBS digital programming over-the-air. CBS has allowed the programming to DISH customers who cannot receive signals off-the-air in markets where it has an owned-and-operated station. Viewers in other markets must receive waivers from most CBS affiliates to receive the feeds. A DISH Network spokesperson said that only about 30-35 percent of DISH subscribers are eligible for the CBS H/DTV services.

EchoStar said its plan would provide incentive for broadcasters to work faster to build-out their digital facilities, while encouraging consumers to purchase HDTV sets and monitors to help speed the nation's conversion from an analog NTSC to a digital ATSC television system. The FCC has established a 2006 deadline for all analog broadcasting to end.

The National Association of Broadcasters quickly denounced EchoStar's proposal, saying that its network affiliate members are making "tremendous efforts" to meet the DTV deadlines, and fought for many years to keep satellite providers from invading local TV markets with out-of-market network programming feeds.