Co. taps Tribe to argue case

WASHINGTON — EchoStar chair-CEO Charlie Ergen on Tuesday accused the National Assn. of Broadcasters of spreading misinformation and announced the satcasting conglom would set up a rival shop at NAB’s upcoming confab in Las Vegas.

In a letter to the country’s broadcasters plugging EchoStar’s proposed merger with satcaster DirecTV, Ergen said he is prepared to sign local carriage agreements with each and every TV station owner visiting EchoStar next week in Sin City. NAB’s meeting runs April 6-11.

At the same time, EchoStar announced it had retained constitutional attorney Lawrence Tribe to lead its U.S. Supreme Court challenge of a law blocking satcasters from providing distant affil signals to local audiences.

NAB has suggested that Ergen is being less than well-intentioned in promising Capitol Hill lawmakers that he is dedicated to providing local signals, when at the same time he’s challenging carriage laws in court.

Trade org, which wields mighty influence in the halls of Congress, declined to comment on Ergen’s open letter to broadcasters, or to the news that he will be in the near vicinity of NAB’s 2002 show.

Ergen said there was nothing hypocritical about the court challenge, filed this week in Supreme Court, and that it doesn’t diminish the dedication to local carriage. Rather, EchoStar doesn’t believe the government should dictate what channels a satcaster provides.

“We believe the continued misinformation and rhetoric from the NAB on this issue is a disservice to you. It threatens what is likely the only path in the foreseeable future to satellite carriage of local TV channels in all markets, big or small,” Ergen wrote in his open letter.

The EchoStar/DirecTV deal is facing substantial suspicion on Capitol Hill, but most insiders expect the deal to be ultimately cleared by antitrust toppers at the U.S. Dept. of Justice and regulators at the Federal Communications Commission.

If they aren’t allowed to merge, EchoStar and DirecTV won’t have the needed spectrum to offer blanket local carriage, Ergen said.

Broadcasters, however, weren’t assured.

“This serves as Exhibit A in EchoStar’s blatant disregard for the congressional intent and the rights of local broadcasters. We fully expect the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the law promoting localism in the delivery of free, over-the-air television,” a TV industry exec said.

The law Tribe will be challenging was enacted out of concern that satcasting customers prefer distant signals over local broadcast signals, since it allows them to see programming and sports at an earlier time. Local broadcasters aren’t happy, since they lose the audience.

EchoStar also is challenging a new law requiring a satcaster to carry none or all local signals in a given market.

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