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Bird failure zaps NPR but few syndies hurt

Pagers, radio blacked out, but TV had backups

The failure of a major communications satellite late Tuesday amounted to barely a hiccup for the handful of major TV distribs that relied on the bird, but at least a half-dozen radio pubcasters were silenced Wednesday for lack of programming feeds from National Public Radio.

Hardest hit by the snafu on PanAmSat’s Galaxy IV satellite were paging services. PanAmSat would not disclose the customer list for the Galaxy IV, but industry experts estimated that some 80% to 90% of the nation’s 40 million-plus pagers were affected by the outage, which began about 6 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Connecticut-based PanAmSat was busy transferring the data and programming feeds to an interim Galaxy satellite. Company officials projected that service to most of the bird’s clients would be restored by the end of day, although it will take six days for PanAmSat to move a permanent replacement satellite into the ailing Galaxy IV’s orbital slot.

The much talked-about interruption in vital communications services caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. FCC chairman William Kennard said Wednesday he would direct the commission’s National Reliability and Interoperability Council to investigate the cause of the failure and make “appropriate recommendations” to the telecom industry.

On the TV side, CBS’ Eyemark Video Services had the largest volume of programming on the wayward bird, but Eyemark execs were crowing Wednesday about the success of the company’s internal backup plan for just such emergencies. Aided by CBS’ extensive broadcast facilities in Gotham, Eyemark was able to transfer its programming feeds to another Galaxy satellite without any significant interruptions in its regular delivery sked.

In addition to Eyemark shows, Eyemark Video Services handles satellite transmission of programs to hundreds of TV stations nationwide for such distribs as Studios USA, Tribune Entertainment and Rysher Entertainment.

The WB Television Network also had programming flowing through the Galaxy IV to affils around the country, but the weblet was able to shift to the backup satellite without any disruptions.

NPR feed affected

Engineers for Washington-based National Public Radio were pressed into service late Tuesday as the satellite failure came in the middle of NPR’s popular “All Things Considered” program. Within an hour, NPR had set up a live Internet broadcast and telephone transmissions that were picked up by many of its 600 station affils. NPR also was aided by satellite transponder space offered Tuesday night by ABC, PBS and Canada’s CBC, according to NPR spokeswoman Siriol Evans.

“It was a through-the-night, all-hands-on-deck effort for our engineers and our member stations,” Evans said.

By 3 p.m. EDT Wednesday, feeds from NPR and its affiliated Public Radio Satellite System program service were back up on the interim Galaxy satellite, but some affils at stations with older equipment were still stuck for programming because of an inability to reposition their receiver satellites to the new orbital slot.

The last major communications satellite failure to impact the TV biz came in January 1997 when AT&T’s Telstar 401 satellite spun out of control.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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