DirecTV to give subs some local channels

Move follows EchoStar offer, but cable is real rival

WASHINGTON — DirecTV announced Wednesday that it has decided to follow rival satcaster EchoStar’s lead and offer a programming package that includes a handful of local channels.

The service eventually will be rolled out in the nation’s top 20 markets, DirecTV prexy Eddy Hartenstein said. EchoStar is already in the local programming business in 13 of the nation’s top markets.

Reversing field

DirecTV’s change of heart was caused by two factors, Hartenstein said: the House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow satcasters to provide local channels and the company is slated to add 100 more channels through its acquisition of Primestar and USSB.

By next October, it should have a total of 400 channels, Hartenstein told Daily Variety, giving it enough capacity to include a limited number of local channels in the nation’s top markets.

Asked if he had decided to enter the local programming business because of competitive pressure from EchoStar, Hartenstein replied, “Hell no.”

Hartenstein insisted that DirecTV sees cable, not EchoStar, as its main competition. With local programming, Hartenstein said, “There is very little (that cable) can do that we can’t.”

Four majors first

DirecTV’s service will allow subscribers to supplement their regular cable network and sports programming with a package that includes local affils of the four major networks. It will not include WB or UPN channels in the early going. However, the legislation that has passed the House and is slated to hit the Senate floor soon would require DirecTV and EchoStar to carry a full slate of local channels by 2002 in markets where they offer services featuring local channels.

Hartenstein said the local programming service is seen as a lure for new subscribers. Existing subscribers will have to purchase a new dish to get their local programming via satellite.