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Near, and yet so far - Broadcasting & Cable

Near, and yet so far

EchoStar will offer CBS in HDTV, but stations may try to stop it
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When Jens Wellman, a day trader in Phoenix, heard the news a few weeks ago that EchoStar would carry high-definition programming from CBS, he was overjoyed.

Maybe he should calm down.

Since January, when CBS offered the Super Bowl in HDTV to its O&O and affiliated stations broadcasting in digital, Wellman has been pressuring his local CBS affiliate, KPHO-TV, to provide HD programs to its viewers.

Meredith Broadcasting's KPHO-TV was the first station in Phoenix to go digital, in 1999, but it still hasn't offered a high-definition signal. (Other stations in the market do offer the national HD feeds of ABC, NBC and PBS programs.)

So Wellman, a German native who has been living in Phoenix for more than 10 years, started the HDTV Society of Arizona, which now has about 50 members who have purchased either a new HDTV set or an over-the-air digital tuner card for their PC. Wellman himself watches HD via separate computer cards from Telemann and AccessDTV on a 24-inch monitor.

The agreement between EchoStar and CBS calls for the DISH Network to launch East and West Coast CBS HD feeds beginning this fall. Depending on where they live, DISH customers will be offered one of the CBS HD feeds without charge if the area is served by a CBS O&O station, if the area is not served by a local CBS affiliate, or if the area is served by an affiliate that chooses to allow the out-of-market CBS high-def signal to be provided via satellite.

KPHO-TV chooses not to. "We're waiting until there's significant market demand and a clear business model before we commit to HDTV," says Broadcast Communications Manager Jody Judge.

In a statement, Meredith explains that "KPHO has made a significant investment to distribute its signals in its broadcasting area. As such, the station does not waive those rights regardless of one's ability to receive HDTV or other services via satellite."

Other CBS affiliates may make the same decision. Ray Deavers, president and general manager at KWTX-DT Waco, Texas, and current head of the CBS Affiliate Board, says he's waiting for a formal proposal from EchoStar in the next few weeks before locking into a firm position.

"The board certainly applauds what the network has done to drive HDTV programming, but we need to see how this is going to affect us relative to our individual markets," he says, pointing out that he personally doesn't think it's a bad deal.

"My station is already broadcasting HDTV, so stations like mine want to know how this deal will affect them."

CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks helped put the EchoStar deal together. "We negotiated this deal with the express provision that an affiliate would have the right to either let the signal into their market or not," he explains.

"Obviously," he continues, "we think it's a good idea, or we wouldn't have let [EchoStar] into our O&O markets."

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