EchoStar, DirecTV deny they are hostile to religious p'gramming

NEW YORK — A group of Christian broadcasters gathered outside the Justice Dept. last week to protest the proposed merger of satcasters EchoStar and DirecTV, charging that the partners are hostile to religious and family programming. The companies denied the allegations in a surprisingly detailed statement.

Their deal is being scrutinized by the DOJ as well as the FCC, with a ruling expected this fall. While a decision could swing either way, many on Wall Street think the merger could be nixed on antitrust considerations. The deal would join the nation’s only two satellite providers.

Bird biz vs. cable

The companies want the FCC to consider the much larger cable industry a direct competitor. And if the giant AT&T-Comcast cable merger is approved earlier, there will be added pressure to let the satcasters combine as well.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the local utilities that resell satellite services to rural consumers have been lobbying hard against a merger. EchoStar and DirecTV may have wanted to nip the religion issue in the bud before it gathered more steam.

Getting religion

EchoStar said it has never fought laws to carry religious broadcasters but has abided by “must carry” provisions and will continue to do so. The combined company would carry all local channels, making it the largest distributor of local religious broadcasts. EchoStar said it carries 48 religious channels and 40 channels of family entertainment and educational programming. Company said it has not dropped ABC Family.

Murdoch tried for more than a year to merge with DirecTV and took it hard when he was jilted on the altar in favor of a deal with Charlie Ergen’s EchoStar. News Corp. may well take another run at DirecTV if the current deal falls through. But Murdoch may have his own battle with the religious right –some of the protesters Thursday also had signs lambasting the racy content on the Fox network.

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