Satellites 4% solution
Fulfilling license obligations, DBS providers now offer two dozen 'public interest' networks
By Peter J. Brown -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/16/2000 8:00:00 PM
At 10 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, DirecTV's Channel 375 launched into two hours of up-tempo Latin music by a band from Venezuela-one of the global TV offerings of WorldLinkTV: Television Without Borders.
The non-commercial network and its alternative music are part of the growing block of "public interest" programming that DirecTV and rival EchoStar are broadcasting to fulfill their satellite TV license obligation.
Implementing a provision of the 1992 Cable Act, the FCC began requiring DBS service providers in 1998 to set aside 4% of their total capacity for public-interest programming. To qualify for carriage and an opportunity to reach the satellite companies' 10 million combined subscribers, a non-profit organization must offer educational or informational programming on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis without commercials.
DirecTV now has nine such channels. Echostar has 15 and is looking to add as many as five more by the end of the year.
The satellite TV companies get to pick the programmers, but they may not charge more than half the cost of operating a satellite transponder. Echostar has set the monthly fee at $10,371; DirecTV, at $6,350. But, in some cases, they say, they waive the fee. In addition to the fee, the selected programmers must cover the cost of getting their signal to the satellite uplinks.
"The [carriage] fee is not a big consideration," says Eric Galatas of Boulder, Colo.-based Free Speech TV, which promotes social justice and human rights on its EchoStar channel and is seeking a channel on DirecTV.
"It is reasonable that we pay something," says Kim Spencer, president of San Rafael, Calif.-based Link Media Inc., which is the parent of WorldLinkTV. It has a channel on both companies.
EchoStar has invited 60 non-profits to apply for a handful of additional public-interest channels that will be opening up; 20 have responded, according to Director of Education and Business Solutions Polly Dawkins.
"When we launched in January, we were two channels over the 4% requirement. With better compression techniques and new satellites going up, our channel count is closing in on 500. Local-to-local and business channels at our DBS slot at 61.5 degrees have to be included in this total, based on the FCC's rules," Dawkins says.
"Currently, all of our allocated channels are filled," says DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer. "But we are accepting applications from all qualified programmers. In the fourth quarter of this year, we will determine the number of additional channels, if any, we will add based on quarterly calculations."
Most of the public-interest content providers have budgets that are tiny compared with mainstream content providers. Link Media, for example, has an annual budget of roughly $5 million. "Our mission is to connect Americans to the world, and everybody is finding us," says Spencer.
Free Speech TV has a staff of eight and an annual projected budget of approximately $1 million, says Galatas. The channel distributes four hours of programming each week on tape to 50 cable systems nationwide as well. "We want to find some way to help the voices that are being marginalized by corporate media," says Galatas.
Florentina Balseca, program director at the New York City-based Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, a distance-learning and informational network for the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S., says that HITN is getting a lot of positive feedback from EchoStar's subscribers.
Sarasota, Fla.-based Educating Everyone, a network offering foreign-language instruction via EchoStar, has a staff of only three, according to Monica Pilkey, director of educational services.
Although the satellite companies carry the channels under government mandate, they don't complain-at least not publicly. "We are hearing very positive responses from our customers," Dawkins says. "They welcome these new additions, and they are enjoying these TV programs, which are different from mainstream TV programming."
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