Wed, Nov 10, 1999
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Two Million Satellite TV
Customers Face Network Cut-Off

WASHINGTON — As more than two million satellite television customers faced a looming, court-ordered cut-off of network programming, the networks scrambled Wednesday to make sure the order took effect as lawmakers here sought a further delay.

On Capitol Hill, where thousands of angry phone calls have poured in to protest the cut-off, members of Congress said they would try to pass quick legislation delaying the U.S. District Court order for 90 days or more.

Rep. Bill Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana and chairman of the House Commerce Committee's communications subcommittee, said introduction of the bill was "imminent."

"We are concerned about the court's solution that may go too far," Tauzin said at the start of a hearing on the issue.

But the four major U.S. television networks and their affiliated stations said leading satellite broadcasters DirecTV was planning to evade the court's order. They planned to return to the Miami court for a further ruling forcing DirecTV to cut-off their shows.

The networks moved after Tuesday's announcement by DirecTV, a unit of Hughes Electronics Corp., that it would evade the cut-off by supplying network signals directly rather than through another company, PrimeTime 24.

Under a 1988 law, satellite TV services like DirecTV and Echostar Communications Corp. can only offer network programming to customers who cannot receive adequate over-the-air TV reception.

The Miami court last year found that PrimeTime 24 had ignored the law's limitation and illegally signed up more than two million satellite TV subscribers.

The court ordered that PrimeTime 24 cut-off those customers on Feb. 28 and April 30.

CBS Corp., General Electric Co.'s NBC, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and News Corp.'s Fox said they planned to ask the court to apply the PrimeTime 24 ruling directly to DirecTV.

Broadcasters have accused the satellite companies of ignoring required tests and signing up millions of customers for distant network programming who could receive adequate over-the-air reception from local stations.

The broadcast of distant signals harms local stations by siphoning off viewers, they argued.

"Local stations would make less revenue in a smaller market," Cox Broadcasting executive vice president Andrew Fisher told lawmakers at a Senate hearing Tuesday. "Less revenue would mean less money for important local programming such as news, community affairs and public safety."

Congress is considering a variety of longer-term proposals to address the situation, including perhaps easing the distant network limit or grandfathering customers currently receiving distant network signals.

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