Broadcasters Win EchoStar Suit

Broadcasters' eight year-long campaign to force EchoStar to stop providing distant broadcast network signals to its customers could be over this week as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Court found in favor of the networks.

The decision could force EchoStar's Dish network to drop distant network signals from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC to more than 600,000 homes which the court said were illegally receiving the signals in violation of the Satellite Home Viewer Act of 1988. The act mandated that satellite broadcasters could only provide distant network signals to households that could not receive broadcast network signals over the air. The networks, along with NAB, filed suit against EchoStar in 1998, alleging that the satellite broadcaster was violating hundreds of copyright protections by providing such signals.

In reaching its decision, the court concluded that EchoStar had "engaged in a nationwide pattern or practice of delivering a primary transmission made by a network station... to subscribers who are not eligible to receive the transmission..." and that it found no evidence that EchoStar "was ever interested in complying with the Act."

EchoStar said it was disappointed in the ruling and that it had reached settlement agreements over the years with hundreds of the approximately 800 network stations nationwide.

"We are reaching out again to the NAB, FOX and remaining stations to try and satisfy all of their concerns without harming consumers and considering our available options in response to the ruling," EchoStar said in a statement.

The satellite company compared its carriage of distant network signals to the newspaper market, where consumers can read "The New York Times" or "The San Francisco Chronicle" regardless of where they live. Broadcasters, however, claim that allowing satellite companies to carry distant network signals harms local ratings.

NAB said that the unanimous court decision "affirms the importance of localism in television, and vindicates an eight year effort by TV broadcasters to stop EchoStar's blatant and massive abuse of copyright law."

This week's ruling affirms a 2003 decision by a district court that ordered EchoStar to turn off ineligible subscribers. Part of EchoStar's appeal of that ruling concerns the definition of "unserved households," in particular, the methods for testing whether those households can receive a "Grade B" signal, which would render them ineligible to receive a distant network signal. The FCC is currently gathering public comments on its method for testing signal strength of DTV signals.