Double-Dish Battle Heats Up for the Holiday

While Echostar churns out a daily deluge of announcements hailing its every local-channel launch, the company's chief executive is engaged in verbal fisticuffs over the double-dish system used to provide local channels to around 3 million subscribers.

Echostar CEO Charlie Ergen fired off a letter this week to members of the congressional committees considering legislation in the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act (SHVERA) that could kibosh the double dish. SHVERA is scheduled for full mark-up by the House Commerce Committee on Thursday, June 3. Hence, Ergen's letter, which urged lawmakers to keep their mitts off his dishes.

Broadcasters say double dishing is discriminatory toward the more uncool channels, and therefore should be dumped within a year. For Ergen, that would mean switching out 3 million satellite dishes and reconfiguring the Dish Network.

John Lawson, chief of the Association of Public Television Stations, jumped in the game with his own missive to Ergen ally Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

"The language that Congress included in [Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act] in 1999 was crystal clear: Satellite carriers that choose to offer local broadcast signals must do so in a nondiscriminatory manner," Lawson wrote. "Nonetheless, 25 public television stations currently are subject to this blatantly discriminatory practice by one satellite provider, EchoStar."

John Orlando, executive vice president of government relations for the National Association of Broadcasters also sent a note to lawmakers blasting Echostar's double-dish system, which was initially represented in 2001 as a temporary fix until more birds could be added to the fleet.

"Yet EchoStar continues the harmful two-dish scheme," Orlando wrote. "The once interim solution has become permanent."

Orlando sniffed that Echostar's practice was "duplicitous," to which Ergen responded with words to the effect of, "hey, how about that digital transition?"

"As Congress considers this draconian measure advocated by the broadcasters, the broadcasters themselves are more than two years past the date by which Congress directed them to be broadcasting their signal in digital," Ergen's letter said. "Worse yet, the broadcasters concede that they [will] not be able to return their analog spectrum to the federal government by 2006, or by any foreseeable date in the future. This could cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by delaying the auction of this spectrum for other uses."

Ergen then lobbed a line from an article quoting an NAB spokesman justifying the delay: "This transition must be orderly to ensure that consumers do not lose access to local television."

Same here, Ergen said. The DBS chief said Echostar just needed more time to do away with double dishes and not create havoc for current subscribers. Ergen pledged to ditch double dishes voluntarily by 2008.

The double-dish system was impetus behind a slew of press releases that all began with the words, "Dish Network Satellite Television Brings Local Channels to.." Towns like Scottsbluff, Neb., Klamath Falls, Ore. and Wausau-Rhinelander, Wis., are among the recent additions, although they are most likely single-dish cities. Ergen pointed out that Echostar has not launched a double-dish offering in five months, and that double-dish markets have been reduced in recent months from 45 to 38 out of the 127 markets where local channels are now offered.