FCC to Vote on Satellite Carriage Wednesday

The FCC has scheduled a major vote March 19 on when, where, and what kind of local stations satellite operators will have to carry.

Both sides have been busy lobbying the FCC. Broadcasters say delivering local into-local in all 210 DMAs is in the public service and are demanding local HD carriage; satellite operators say it will take years and billions of dollars to expand capacity for more local HD channels, and DirecTV has proposed a hybrid satellite/ATSC receiver system for viewers in the smallest markets.

On March 6, NAB told the FCC “it should require proof of capacity constraints” and require all satellite carriers, as early as possible, to retransmit (in high definition) the HD signal of any station whose signals they carry.

NAB capped its plea with a list of questions it suggested the FCC ask the satellite companies. The questions dug into areas from flash memory in receivers and “consumer hardware/software legacy issues related to the use of Ka slots, MPEG-4 or 8-PSK” to satellite development plans and frequency usage.

DirecTV said the NAB proposal “continues a pattern of attempting to use the digital transition as vehicle to impose additional mandates on others.”

If local HDTV is so important, the DBS operator asked in a filing with the FCC, then why don’t broadcasters themselves commit to local HD programming?

“In the end, what the commission should focus on is this: Nobody has done more to achieve universal broadcast coverage (including HD) than DirecTV,” the company wrote.

Dish and DirecTV have proposed a series of benchmarks toward carriage of HD channels where they carry local channels, leading to HD carriage in all local stations they carry by February 2013, four years after the end of full-power analog broadcasts.

DirecTV now has local service in 148 markets and HD in 76 of those—more than 300 local HD channels in all, the company told the FCC. Dish carries local stations in 174 markets and plans to have HDTV in 100 of those by the end of 2008.

Broadcasters had hoped for tougher obligations for DirecTV in the FCC approval Feb. 25 of the deal transferring control of the company from News Corp. to Liberty Media.