B’cast webs win DirecTV rights battle

Sat-TV subs keeping Big Four signals

The Big Four broadcast webs have won a round in the battle to protect the regional program exclusivity rights of their O&O and affiliate stations.

The webs and their affiliate groups, repped by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, have settled the lawsuit against DirecTV over the satcaster’s transmission of out-of-market affiliate station signals to certain DirecTV subscribers.

The settlement pact calls for DirecTV to help subsidize the purchase of high-tech off-air antennas for subs who now pay about $7 per month to receive the feeds of network affils in Gotham and other major markets because they claim to have trouble receiving their local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates.

Some 700,000 DirecTV subs lost their out-of-market ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC feeds on Feb. 28 after a Miami federal judge ruled that DirecTV and other satcasters were illegally providing feeds to some subs who could pick up their local stations.

Another 1 million to 1.5 million sat-TV subs were poised to lose the Big Four as of April 30.

Those feeds will be temporarily restored under the settlement deal that calls for DirecTV to evaluate the eligibility of its subscribers using the market-by-market geographic guidelines set forth by the Federal Communications Commission.

Subs found to live within “Grade A” signal areas will be disconnected on June 30; subs falling into “Grade B” areas will be cut off Dec. 31. Federal law, designed to protect the exclusivity rights of local affils, limits satellite distribution of out-of-market stations to those subs, mostly in rural areas, who can’t pick up even a Grade B-intensity signal.

The law has been on the books since 1988, but wasn’t strongly enforced until the subscription sat-TV business took off during the past two years. After months of talks between NAB and DirecTV, the deal reached Friday also heads off threatened Congressional action on the issue.

DirecTV will try to assuage the disconnected subs with a discount offer for a high-tech antenna to improve their local over-the-air reception. But broadcasters took a hard line with satcasters because anecdotal evidence suggests that reception is not the primary issue for many of those who pay for out-of-market signals. Some subs want a sampling of other major market stations, or the option of watching earlier or later network feeds — i.e. West Coast subs tuning in to David Letterman at 8:30 p.m. instead of 11:30 p.m.

The dispute between broadcasters and DirecTV underscores the arcane but increasingly contentious issue of program exclusivity in today’s multi-channel world of broadcasters, cablers and satcasters. In contrast to the DirecTV skirmish, broadcasters and their affils are often at odds over exclusivity issues, as web owners with cable interests like Disney/ABC, NBC and Fox look to recycle network programming that was once exclusive to their broadcast affils.

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