WASHINGTON — PrimeTime 24, a satellite programming service that sells network signals to DirecTV’s DBS subscribers, filed an antitrust suit Friday against ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, their affiliate groups and the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

The lawsuit alleges that the webs, affiliate groups and the NAB conspired in “a deliberate effort” to drive PrimeTime 24 out of business.

But the affiliate groups and the NAB have lawsuits of their own, which claim that PrimeTime 24 is illegally importing local TV station signals into other markets. The affiliate groups claim that current copyright law bars PrimeTime 24 from selling a distant market signal to a subscriber who can receive a signal locally.

“PrimeTime 24’s lawsuit is absolutely without merit,” said NAB president Eddie Fritts, adding, “It represents a sorry attempt at diverting attention from the fact that PrimeTime 24 is being sued in three federal courts for violating copyright laws.”

Picking up the tab

In an effort to get around the broadcasters’ objections, PrimeTime 24 has offered in recent months to pay for the rights to retransmit distant market signals. When that offer was refused, PrimeTime 24 challenged broadcasters to a showdown over signal strength. The goal of the contest was to prove that thousands of PrimeTime 24 customers actually received a poor signal from their local stations and therefore should be allowed to watch, via satellite, network programming from a station which is often located in a city thousands of miles from the viewer’s home. The affiliate groups and the NAB snubbed the signal challenge as well.

With the DBS subscriber base reaching 4 million this year, TV station general managers are increasingly concerned about sharing their audience with another affiliated station in a market thousands of miles away.

In addition to the lawsuits filed by affiliate groups, local TV stations have begun challenging PrimeTime 24’s right to sign up individual customers. These challenges are allowed under the Satellite Home Viewers Act, but PrimeTime 24 says they are an organized effort to “maximize the disruption, inconvenience and expense to PrimeTime 24.”

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