Sats pitch most carry

Ask FCC not to put "excessive demands" on capacity in new satellite must-carry rules set to take effect in 2002

Satellite TV companies are taking a page from cable's book in asking the FCC not to implement strict must-carry obligations when they take effect in 2002. But those companies are also using their own manual to make the case.

Satellite carriers point out that they are a national service, with satellites that cover the entire country. Unlike cable operators, which serve local markets, once a satellite carrier picks up a local station, it commits an entire channel covering the whole country.

All this will change somewhat once DirecTV and EchoStar launch so-called "spot beam" satellites, which will be able to cover individual markets. But even then, the companies say, their capacity will be limited. Satellite carriers want the FCC to relax how it defines a "local market" because all spot beams won't be able to precisely duplicate markets according to that definition.

Satellite carriers also argue that too-stringent must-carry rules will limit their ability to provide broadband services, "another area in which the commission has espoused the goal of encouraging competition from different delivery platforms," writes DirecTV.

Satellite TV companies have provided their own suggestions for must-carry rules to the FCC, many of which are drawn directly from cable's arguments.

Satellite companies "believe that the Commission will best serve Congress' intent if it adopts rules that do not burden satellite carriers with excessive demands on capacity in order to satisfy the must-carry obligation," DirecTV writes.

"We are proposing 'most carry,'" said DirecTV head Eddy Hartenstein at the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association's annual convention in Las Vegas earlier this month. "We will carry those stations with the most appeal that aren't duplicated by a national feed."

If the FCC agreed to that, satellite carriers would not have to carry low-rated TV stations, such as local home shopping channels or religious broadcasters. They also could leave off duplicative non-commercial, low-power, translator or satellite TV stations. DirecTV recommends that 4% of its capacity be dedicated to carrying noncommercial stations, while EchoStar suggests 2%.

"Of course, mandatory carriage of non-commercial stations under the must-carry rules should count toward satellite carriers' public-interest obligation," EchoStar writes. The FCC mandates that DBS companies dedicate 4% of their capacity to public-interest programming.

Like cable operators, satellite carriers do not want to be required to carry both broadcasters' analog and digital signals during the transition to digital television. Satellite TV companies say the expense and capacity drain would "far exceed any possible benefit" for consumers.

Also, in its filing, EchoStar "reserves its right to seek judicial evaluation of the facial constitutionality of any provision of [the satellite TV reform law]," fueling speculation that EchoStar may challenge the new must-carry rules in court.

Just as in their fight to require cable operators to carry both their analog and digital signals during the transition to digital TV, broadcasters oppose any change to must-carry rules that would leave any local TV station without a right to be carried.

In addition, the National Association of Broadcasters is asking the FCC for:

  • Carriage of all local stations on contiguous channels: "Satellite carriers must place all local stations in a particular market on a sequential series of channels, and may not isolate 'carry one, carry all' stations in a satellite Siberia removed from the other local stations."

  • Nondiscrimination in pricing and technical quality.

  • Equal treatment in program guides and navigational devices.

  • No requirement that viewers purchase additional equipment.

  • NAB also asked the FCC to delay until 2001 its decision on whether satellite broadcasters have to carry digital signals.

Finally, the National Cable Television Association continued to ask for parity in regulations faced by cable and satellite.