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Cable suit on hold

EchoStar-Viacom carriage hearing delayed

A federal judge in San Francisco on Thursday delayed by a month, to Feb. 27, a hearing related to a spat between Viacom and satcaster EchoStar. The judge kept in place a temporary restraining order that would keep Viacom from yanking its channels from EchoStar’s lineup.

EchoStar sued Viacom earlier this month, claiming that the media conglom was trying to link the rights to carry signals of local CBS stations in major U.S. markets to carriage of other Viacom cable networks. The so-called must carry provision, which allows digital service providers to transmit local broadcast signals, has long been a bone of contention between TV network owners and content distributors.

The hearing was originally scheduled for today, but Viacom asked for an extension past the Super Bowl, which will air on CBS Feb. 1. In a statement, Viacom reiterated its belief that the dispute over the terms of CBS’ carriage belongs at the “negotiating table, not the courtroom.” Viacom added, “The extension that we requested will ensure that no football fan is denied the opportunity to watch the Super Bowl on CBS.”

Viacom said it had put “a very fair offer on the table a week ago” but has had no response from EchoStar. It’s not clear at this point if EchoStar will come back to the bargaining table or wait for its day in court.

In delaying, EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen appears to playing a game of brinkmanship to drive the best possible bargain for the Littleton, Colo.-based company.

The fight recalls the infamous decision by Time Warner Cable in 2000 to pull the signals of Disney’s ABC network off its cable systems in some markets. The FCC ruled that the cabler was in violation of federal regs and ordered the signals restored. The episode was a huge public relations black eye for Time Warner. The two sides eventually inked a long-term carriage pact.

In the current case, EchoStar is afraid CBS will pull its signals — a decision that would hurt both parties.

While cable and satellite companies must carry local signals and usually want to, they still have to pay for that right. The kind and extent of payment has become a nagging issue. Distributors insist that content providers force them into onerous deals to carry additional networks.

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