As Deadline Looms, EchoStar Battles Broadcasters Over Distant Signals

Broadcasters cried foul this week as satellite broadcaster EchoStar attempted to avoid complying with a Dec. 1 deadline to shutoff distant broadcast signals to subscribers of the satellite provider's Dish Network service.

For the better part of the last decade, the National Association of Broadcasters has been leading the charge to force EchoStar to stop carrying out-of-market network signals in favor of local carriage. And while the battles have been fought mainly in the courts--with NAB obtaining a court order in October to finally force EchoStar to drop such signals--the conflict went into overdrive this week as the satellite broadcaster faced the Friday deadline. A potential 850,000 subscribers would be affected by the shutoff. Meanwhile, Congress is attempting to intervene with legislation that would allow EchoStar to continue carrying the signals.

On Wednesday, EchoStar announced a multiyear deal with Indianapolis-based C-Band satellite programmer National Programming Service, to lease transponder space that would, in effect, allow the satellite company to continue carrying local network signals to out-of-market subscribers. The network affiliates involved in the dispute fought back, filing a cease and desist order with a U.S. District Court in Florida, accusing EchoStar of "flagrant contempt" of the court's October judgment in favor of broadcasters. EchoStar had filed an earlier motion to stay the Dec. 1 deadline to give a judge time to review a $100 million settlement that EchoStar reached with network affiliates. The court denied the motion.

"EchoStar demonstrates again its arrogant and flagrant contempt for the rule of law," said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of media relations for NAB. "We're hopeful the courts recognize this latest stunt for what it is: a serial copyright abuser's refusal to comply with numerous court verdicts and federal statutes that preserve the enduring value of local broadcasting."

EchoStar accused broadcasters of "bullying" consumers and the courts and said that the real intention of the Fox-Network led coalition of broadcasters "is to deny consumers their freedom of choice and leave the Fox-owned DirecTV as a monopoly for distant networks." EchoStar's response came amid news this week that rival DirecTV was offering Dish Network subscribers $150 to switch providers and throwing in free hardware and installation to boot.

One station group involved in the dispute announced a deal this week with EchoStar to continue carrying its stations. Pappas Telecasting Companies agreed to allow the satellite broadcasters to continue carriage of 16 of their stations in 14 markets. The stations include:

• Fox: Fresno-Visalia Calif.; Lincoln, Neb.; Omaha, Neb.; Sioux City, Iowa; and Bakersfield, Calif.
• ABC: Lincoln, Neb.
• CBS: El Paso, Texas; and Sioux City, Iowa.
• CW: Fresno-Visalia, Calif.; Greensboro, N.C.; Omaha, Neb; Reno, Nev.; and Yakima, Wash.
• Azteca America: Houston, Texas; Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Sacramento.