Network Signals Might Be Blocked for Rural Satellite Viewers

Most folks in the US take it for granted that they can easily watch broadcasts from networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. But let's say you live in the Oregon hills, about 45 miles from the nearest major city. You've never been able to receive a decent television signal with an antenna, and cable hasn't come within miles of your house. If you want to watch network TV, that new direct broadcast satellite (DBS) dish on your roof is the only option you've got. Due to a recent injunction, however, that option might soon expire.

Back in July, a federal judge in Miami, Florida granted an injunction brought by the local CBS and Fox affiliates against satellite provider PrimeTime 24. The injunction would result in the disconnection of service to rural Florida satellite users, even if they cannot receive local over-the-air network signals and depend on satellite reception for these broadcasts. ABC has filed for a similar injunction, and NBC is expected to follow suit. This action is expected to have ramifications for rural viewers throughout the US.

The court's injunction is based on a federal law known as the Satellite Home Viewers Act (SHVA), which defines who may receive network signals via satellite. Under the SHVA, satellite carriers are allowed to retransmit superstation signals to satellite-dish owner-subscribers located anywhere in the United States, but they may retransmit network signals only to "unserved households" that "cannot receive, through the use of a conventional rooftop receiving antenna, an over-the-air signal of 'Grade B' intensity." If there is an "over-the-air" signal available within a "Grade B contour," the satellite signal for that network must be blocked.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines a "Grade B contour" as a geographic area surrounding a broadcast tower in which a viewable over-the-air TV picture is "predicted" to be received by 50% of the population 50% of the time using an antenna mounted 30 feet above street level. According to the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), a Grade B contour is "predicted" and does not reflect a consumer's actual ability to receive a signal. The organization says that as many as 1 million satellite viewers who live in Grade B contours will lose their network signals because of the court's action.

"This Miami judge is denying millions of rural Americans nationwide the chance to buy what other citizens get for free," says Bob Phillips, CEO of the NRTC. Through its member utilities and affiliates, NRTC provides DirecTV small-dish and C-band satellite services to almost a million rural viewers nationwide. "This shutoff is rapidly approaching. The court's order directs us to disconnect network satellite viewers by October 8. We are asking rural Americans to call or write Congress to prevent this injustice."

On July 8, the NRTC filed an emergency petition for rulemaking with the FCC, asking the Commission to redefine the Grade B contour as a geographic area in which 100% of the population can receive over-the-air network signals 100% of the time using readily available, affordable equipment. Consumers living outside this area would have satellite access to network signals. The NRTC's suggested definition would ensure that the SHVA is consumer-friendly and fairly applied throughout the nation.

In an August 7 letter to the FCC Chairman William E. Kennard, 23 members of the US House of Representatives asked the Commission to give "immediate attention" to the NRTC's emergency petition for rulemaking. The House letter said the Commission "should not expect the court to establish national telecommunications policy. As the expert regulatory agency in telecommunications matters, the Commission was specifically authorized by Congress to define 'Grade B' for purposes of the SHVA. In accordance with that statutory authorization, we believe the Commission should act on an expedited basis to prevent the imminent disenfranchisement of millions of satellite consumers as a result of a District Court's interpretation of the 'Grade B' standard."

In a response, the NRTC's Phillips said "these representatives showed courage by standing up to the powerful network-broadcasting lobbyists, who would rather maintain their monopoly than allow millions of Americans access to network signals on family TV sets across the nation."

Then, last week, The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) stepped in to announce that the original injunction would not be enforced until January 1, 1999, even though the court-ordered date was October 8, 1998. This sounds like a victory for the viewers, but not according to the NRTC.

In a recent letter to Congress, the NRTC and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association characterized the NAB's position as "a blatant attempt by the broadcasters to manipulate Congress through the federal court system." The NRTC's Phillips states that "while, on the surface, NAB's action appears to give satellite carriers an additional few weeks to comply with the injunction, in reality they are attempting to stem the rising tide of consumer calls to Congress and delay congressional action until after the November elections."