Static sat signals

Court moves heating up cable-DBS battle

WASHINGTON — CBS, Fox and CBS affiliates have filed a plaintiffs’ motion in Miami that intensifies the debate over DBS importation of local broadcast signals.

PrimeTime 24 has been importing local broadcast signals and a Miami judge has ordered the DBS provider to cease delivery of them by Oct. 8 — a ruling that could affect 1 million-plus DBS customers nationwide.

In their motion, the plaintiffs notified U.S. District Court Judge Lenore Nesbitt that they’ll unilaterally allow PrimeTime 24 until Jan. 1 to terminate its illegal delivery of distant network signals.

That extension would postpone the potentially widespread disconnects until after the fall elections. That’s a savvy move, given the complaints from irate subscribers that have been flooding Capitol Hill, the FCC and the U.S. Copyright Office.

Congress quickly responded.

“This may give us the breathing room we need to finally resolve the local-into-local controversy and at the same time prevent an interruption of broadcast services for millions of Americans,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman.

“Politically,” he said, “it’s a smart move for broadcasters to make because this issue could have blown up in all of our faces at a bad time — like right before an election.”

Irate customers

Johnson acknowledged that phones at Tauzin’s office have been “ringing off the hook” with irate and frustrated satellite customers, motivated perhaps in part by the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Assn.’s aggressive lobbying campaign announced earlier last week.

“I think you’re going to hear a lot more noise from consumers and, frankly, from us,” said SBCA president Chuck Hewitt in kicking off the national effort.

Supporting the CBS and Fox filing, National Assn. of Broadcasters president Edward O. Fritts responded by blasting the “blatantly illegal business practices of PrimeTime 24 … We sympathize with viewers who were duped by PrimeTime 24 into buying programming packages that violated the Satellite Home Viewer Act.

“It’s important that viewers be given sufficient time to take the necessary steps to receive network programming from the local station.”

The plaintiffs’ motion asked the Court to impose two conditions on PrimeTime 24.

The first is that it provide customers at least 45 days notice that network signals will be terminated, and give them “truthful information” about options to receive web programming from local stations, like installing an over-the-air antenna or subscribing to a “lifeline” cable service.

The second condition: that it provide to each CBS and Fox station, at least 45 days before date of termination, a list of all post-March 11, 1997, subs capable of receiving Grade B broadcast signals so the stations could decide to whom they might grant waivers.

Bigger issue ahead

This heated round of filings and finger-pointing foreshadows a Congressional move to examine the larger DBS/cable issue.

A staffer reported that next month Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will introduce a bill seeking to improve DBS’ competitive position vis-a-vis cable. With so many constituents livid over cable rate hikes, members of Congress could be considering several pro-competitive bills as midterm elections near.

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