a vitriolic jab
at sultans of satellite
Consumer group attacks lack of local carriage
By David Everitt
Some of the issues in satellite broadcasting can get pretty tedious if you’re not a fan of bureaucratic wrangling.
There’s the must-carry debate, for one, which would force DBS providers to carry all or none of the local stations in any given market.
Then there’s the satellite industry’s opposition to Northpoint Technology’s Broadwave, which would offer an alternate, ground-based transmission system.
Not exactly soul-stirring controversies on the face of it.
But a new organization now tells us that, behind all the bureaucratese, there’s a crucial concern for the public.
The satellite industry is cynically refusing to carry 11,000 local stations, depriving many Americans of vital TV services.
That was the theme last Tuesday of the first press conference for EARN, an acronym that stands for Equal Airwaves Right Now.
Executive director Peter Pitts is pretty pugnacious about it all.
"This amounts to satellite road rage," says Pitts.
A lack of local-station carriage, he argues, would make it difficult for consumers to get information on school closings, road conditions and local political debates.
Among those channels that satellite will not deliver, Pitts says, would be "Spanish language stations, African-American-oriented stations, religious programming and almost all public TV stations. Over two-thirds of local stations will be left behind by the satellite companies." By inference, local advertisers would also suffer.
Exactly how are EchoStar and DirecTV doing this? Basically, in two ways, EARN contends.
The first has to do with the must-carry issue. Since DBS providers won’t be able to pick which stations they’ll carry within a particular market, they’ll choose to carry local signals in only the most lucrative, big-city markets, even though, Pitts says, they have enough spectrum to serve rural areas as well.
The second has to do with the satellite industry’s opposition to Broadwave, which, according to EARN, could provide affordable local service to underserved areas.
"The satellite sultans are acting without any thought to the public interest," says Pitts.
A new satellite technology called spot beam will allow EchoStar and DirecTV to customize their services to suit local needs, but Pitts is not optimistic about its impact on local-station carriage.
"The spot beam solution is a joke," he says, asserting that the satellite companies will focus the spot beams only on major markets.
"If you live in Texas, California or Puerto Rico, and you want to watch Spanish language television, it’s hasta la vista, baby."
Satellite-industry observers agree with some of EARN’s points but differ with others.
As for the basic contention that DBS providers are focusing more on urban markets as opposed to their original target of rural, underserved areas, Mike Goodman, an analyst at the Yankee Group, sees this as a natural business evolution.
"In urban and suburban areas, the satellite companies needed to offer local stations in order to compete with cable," he says. "It’s unrealistic to think they would focus only on rural markets."
But analysts tend to agree with the satellite industry position that it doesn’t have enough spectrum capacity to offer all local stations across the country. In fact, observers maintain that EchoStar and DirecTV would probably be able to offer more local stations in more areas if they did not have to comply with must-carry.
The idea is this: If DBS companies have to carry all 25 local stations in the New York City area, then they’ll have significantly less capacity to carry smaller-market stations. But if they can carry, say, only the top-four network affiliates in each market, then they’ll be able to cover more areas.
"There are bandwidth constraints," says Adi Kishore, another Yankee Group analyst. "The satellite industry makes it sound worse than it is. But conversely, the other side tries to make the capacity seem greater than it really is."
Currently, the satellite industry is making an appeal to overturn the must-carry rules, but as things stand now, "The DBS companies need a certain number of subs in a local market to make local-station carriage worthwhile," says Jim Stroud, a Carmel Group analyst.
He speculates, though, that the proposed idea of EchoStar and DirecTV sharing transponder space could make it more practical to transmit local signals.
When it comes to EARN’s proposed solution–the FCC approval of Northpoint’s Broadwave system–another issue comes up. During the course of the EARN press conference, Pitts not only advocated Northpoint’s system, but also invited Northpoint president Sophia Collier to make her case.
Questions from reporters indicated that some wondered whether this conference might be a sort of Broadwave rally.
"Broadwave is a solution," Pitts said. "We support any technology that brings broader access to the public."
August 1, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-David Everitt covers television and technology for Media Life, writing from Huntington, New York.