Lawmakers reached a deal yesterday that will allow urban users of satellite television dishes to pull in local news, weather and sports--thus easing one of the most galling aspects of dish ownership and making satellite TV a more potent competitor to cable television.
"By Christmas of this year, consumers across the nation will have a real choice other than their cable operator," Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) said in a statement. "This is a giant win for consumers," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
The complex agreement breaks a deadlock that has kept the legislation stalled since both houses of Congress passed versions of the bill in May.
The local-broadcast section of the bill is the one that will have the greatest effect on the market, currently about 10 million households. Some 70 million households, by contrast, have cable.
If enacted, the bill would allow satellite customers in the D.C. area to tune in to Bob Ryan weather reports on WRC-TV Channel 4, Sky Fox traffic reports from WTTG Channel 5 and other programs broadcast on the local major network affiliates that now can be accessed only via cable or over the airwaves.
"This brings us one step closer to offering local channels to up to 50 million homes," said Bob Marsocci, director of communications for DirecTV Inc., which currently enjoys about 70 percent of the satellite market. "We don't agree with every provision, but on balance it's worthy of our support," he said.
The second-largest satellite TV company, however, said the bill could raise prices for many consumers. Because market leader DirecTV has such market clout, it will have a purchasing advantage for local broadcast rights not enjoyed by its smaller competitors, said Karen Watson of Echostar Communications Corp. The bill would give satellite companies six months to negotiate the purchase of full broadcast rights, though they could begin broadcasting right away.
"Congress will tell you that you've won the million-dollar lottery--what they won't tell you is you'll have to pay $2 million," Watson said.
One consumer advocate said the bill does not go far enough to offer real choice to viewers. "We're disappointed," said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington office of Consumers Union. Kimmelman noted that the bill opens local access only for major metropolitan markets and does not apply nationwide, which he argues would put even more pressure on cable companies to reduce rates.
Broadcasters, who had fought any attempt to force them to give up their rights to their local markets, have also signed on to the measure. "We think this is a balanced approach, and we have endorsed it," said Jim May, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The White House, which blasted earlier versions of the bill as unfair to consumers and smaller players in the satellite market, indicated that it would approve the compromise version. "We haven't seen the final agreement. However, our understanding is that the issues that we were concerned about dealing with competition have been addressed," said White House spokesman Barry Toiv.
CAPTION: The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Orrin G. Hatch, left, and Patrick J. Leahy, who called it "a big win for consumers."