Ergen dishes out criticism of bill

CEO claims NAB advocates 'hypocritical position'

WASHINGTON — EchoStar topper Charlie Ergen urged key lawmakers on Capitol Hill not to adopt the one-dish requirement included in a bill making its way through Congress.

Ergen made his position clear in a letter Wednesday to Senate Commerce and Judiciary committee members. Congress has spent the past two months debating the merits of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act, a must-pass bill that reauthorizes 1999 legislation aimed at making satcasters more competitive against cablers.

Current bill contains a provision that would prevent EchoStar from requiring subscribers to have a second satellite dish if they want certain local channels. Minority- and religious-oriented channels have complained that being relegated to a second dish has put them at a competitive disadvantage. Under the legislation, Congress would allow EchoStar to place local channels on a second dish, but only if it puts all local channels on it.

In the letter, Ergen took issue with the measure, claiming it would force the satcaster to shift business resources from market expansion efforts to installing second dishes on the homes of every customer subscribing to local channels in as many as 30 markets around the country.

“This onerous and inequitable proposal would force EchoStar to shift significant financial and human resources away from expanding our markets and services to consumers,” Ergen wrote.

Ergen also charged the National Assn. of Broadcasters with advocating a “hypocritical position.” In arguing in favor of the new dish requirement, the NAB has defended minority and religious broadcasters’ rights to operate on a level playing field with other channels. Meanwhile, the NAB has pushed for a smooth and orderly digital transition, warning Congress not to do anything to disrupt consumer access to local channels.

Ergen contends that moving to a one-dish requirement in one year, another requirement of the bill, would cause millions of EchoStar customers to lose their local channels while the transition took place. Any satcaster and cabler competitor could easily pick up any displaced customers during this time period, he argued.

“The NAB’s double standard is outrageous,” he wrote.

Instead, Ergen suggested that EchoStar could eliminate its two-dish system by 2008 and commit to launching no new two-dish markets in the interim.

“Why is it OK to jeopardize all local television access for millions of satellite viewers but not for viewers of individual stations who have had years to complete the conversion to digital and have failed to do so?” Ergen questioned.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton fired back, calling Ergen’s charges of hypocrisy “a red herring.”

“This is a desperate attempt by EchoStar to divert attention from Congress’ criticism of its discriminatory two-dish scheme,” Wharton maintained.

EchoStar could easily put all local programmers or put all their pay-per-view channels — including several porn channels — on a separate dish if it wanted to, he asserted.

“DirecTV does it, so why can’t EchoStar?” Wharton asked.

The House and Senate Commerce panels are expected to vote on the legislation next week.