Mary Ann Byron's satellite dish beams in an NBC affiliate from New York City, an ABC station from Nashville, and a CBS channel out of Erie, Pa. The problem is, Byron lives in the remote valley town of West Wardsboro, Vt. Satellite television is finally approaching the long-awaited 500-channel universe, but it's still not allowed to carry her local news.
Congress is now trying to fix that glitch in the video landscape, as part of a landmark effort to overhaul the convoluted laws governing the nation's TV sets. Under legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are trying to make sure all Americans have access to local programming, and to lower their monthly TV bills by helping satellite firms compete with cable monopolies.
That may not sound as sexy as tax cuts or gun control, but the members of Congress dealing with the issue say it has generated more calls from their constituents than any other controversy except impeachment.
In May, the reforms looked like a done deal, after the House and Senate passed similar versions of a satellite dish bill with a grand total of only one dissenting vote. But the legislation has languished for four months now, even though thousands of angry dish owners could lose their favorite network signals unless Congress acts fast. Furious lobbying wars have erupted over details of the bill, petty political battles have developed over control of the bill, and a House-Senate committee created to reconcile the two versions has not even met.
"That's a real shame," Byron said. "When a snowstorm is coming to Vermont, it doesn't really help to have the weather report from Tennessee."
More than 10 million Americans own satellite dishes, and 70 million subscribe to cable, so the questions of what they can watch and how much they will pay have huge political and financial implications. But this complex fight is only the most public example of the 21st century telecommunications wars brewing on Capitol Hill, as industries that together donated more than $25 million to federal candidates in the 1998 elections maneuver for control of America's phone, video and Internet connections. In the coming battle for digital access to American homes -- a fight whose rules will be set by Congress -- this is a mere skirmish.
"If we can't get this done, I wonder how we'll deal with the other big-money issues," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. "This should be an easy one. I don't know anyone who thinks there's too much competition in the cable industry."
Congress first dealt with the satellite industry in 1988, when it passed legislation designed to promote dishes in rural areas that had poor free-TV reception and no cable service. That law gave satellite firms the right to provide those areas with "distant signals," such as the out-of-town networks Byron gets in West Wardsboro, but not local programming, which was not even available through the satellite technology of the time.
Now that technology exists, but satellite firms are not allowed to use it. So while the satellite industry has grown quickly in rural areas over the last decade, most suburban and urban viewers still choose cable despite rising rates, and despite satellite packages offering nearly unlimited movie and sports options through city-friendly, pizza-sized dishes. In surveys, many say they would switch to dishes if they could still watch their local shows.
So on Capitol Hill, everyone seems to support the idea of letting satellite firms carry local programming, the central plank of the House and Senate bills. The firms themselves have mobilized an army of customers to demand action, forwarding their calls to Congress through toll-free hot lines, soliciting tens of thousands of their postcards. The powerful National Association of Broadcasters has supported "local-into-local" as well. And even the cable lobby agreed not to oppose it, after key congressional players threatened to reregulate the cable industry if they are prevented from introducing competition through this bill.
Congress is under heavy pressure to act quickly because the satellite licenses created by the 1988 law are due to expire on Dec. 31, and because politicians mess with TV at their peril. Meanwhile, more than 2 million satellite customers are in imminent danger of losing distant signals, after a federal judge ruled that satellite firms have no right to provide them service outside of poorly served rural areas under current law. The new legislation would address many of these problems.
But so far, turf battles among Republican committee chairmen have left the bill, and the industry, in limbo. In the House, Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has squabbled with Commerce Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). In the Senate, the power struggle has pitted Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) against Commerce Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), two rivals for the GOP presidential nomination.
Last month, McCain released a curt letter urging his colleagues to schedule a meeting to hash out their differences: "I for one am not only prepared, but impatient, to do so." The committee staffers did meet last week, and Hyde said he believes the members will meet soon.
"It's very surprising that it's taken this long; we're running out of time," Hyde said. "I'm ever hopeful, but we do have some issues to work out."
At least one thorny issue has been resolved, the "must-carry" rule. Cable firms are required by law to provide all local stations in areas where they provide any local stations, so they insisted that satellite firms should face the same requirements. The satellite lobby argued that such a mandate makes no sense at a time when cable dominates 85 percent of the pay-TV market, warning that must-carry would make it too costly for them to offer local service outside big cities. So the key players have reached a compromise, phasing in must-carry for satellites by 2002, and everyone seems relatively pleased.
The other differences have been harder to resolve, many involving arcane fights between satellite firms, especially EchoStar, and the broadcast lobby. For example, EchoStar wants a measure forcing broadcasters to charge them the same prices as cable companies for the rights to local shows; broadcasters want to negotiate their own prices. The two industries are also battling over distant network signals; satellite firms want to offer them to as many viewers as possible, including the illegally served customers, while broadcasters fear that local affiliates will suffer if popular network shows are available on multiple channels and argue that the satellite industry should not be rewarded for essentially stealing their programs.
The lobbying, in the words of one staffer, has been "absolutely brutal." The broadcasters are known as an almost undefeatable special interest on Capitol Hill; they do, after all, control the advertising time that politicians need to win elections. But scrappy EchoStar chief executive officer Charlie Ergen has been working Washington hard, essentially commuting from his Colorado home. He recently distributed an unusually feisty memo to key lawmakers outlining his company's positions on six major areas of dispute: "Make no mistake, those options assigned failing grades would be a failure by Congress to create a truly competitive choice for the consumer."
EchoStar already provides some local programming in a few urban markets, including the Washington area, but Ergen has warned his customers that if the bill fails, that experiment will end. In recent weeks, EchoStar has been connecting so many viewers to Congress through its service hot line that staffers are complaining about being swamped by calls from customers trying to order pay-per-view boxing matches and argue about billing statements.
Still, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, says Ergen has a point: Until Congress gives the EchoStars of the world a real chance to compete, cable subscribers will pay virtual-monopoly prices for notoriously mediocre service.
"There are still some big fights to settle, but we've got to get moving on this if we want to give consumers a real choice," Tauzin said. "Right now, they're literally defenseless."
That is especially true for viewers in the hamlets of America where the cable firms dare not tread. Leahy, for example, lives on the side of a mountain in Middlesex, Vt., a town the size of the District, with a population of only 1,200. He can only get one local channel with rabbit ears; he still can't get any with a dish.
"Vermonters love snow, but not on our TVs," Leahy said. "I haven't gotten this much mail since Monica Lewinsky."