Satellite TV subscribers to receive local signals

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(Host) For many rural Vermonters, owning a satellite dish has been a mixed blessing. While viewers had their choice of sports events, cooking shows and movie channels, they couldn’t receive local stations.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff explains why that’s about to change.

(Charnoff) Vermont has the highest penetration of satellite dishes in the country. Forty-four percent of Vermont homeowners who own a television have a satellite dish; the national average is 16%. Yet because of a complex set of broadcast laws, satellite dish owners throughout the country haven’t had access to their local stations.

In 1998, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, along with then Senate Majority Leader Orrin Hatch, introduced legislation to address the problem. The bill was designed to permit local TV signals, as opposed to distant out-of-state-signals, to be offered to viewers via satellite. Peter Martin is General Manager of WCAX-TV.

(Martin) “What that act did was to grant the satellite vendors a, what’s called a compulsory license. Cable has a compulsory license. That is they are entitled, cable or satellite, to pick up our signal, with no compensation, and provide it to subscribers for a profit. Once that hurdle was gotten over then it really came down to a question of transponder space.”

(Charnoff) Each satellite has a limited number of transponders, which relay the broadcast signals to television receivers. Satellite companies were more inclined to use their transponders to broadcast channels which would bring in the most revenue. This put local stations at the back of the line for transponder space.

In 1999, Congress passed the Hatch-Leahy Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act. The bill, along with several amendments, fostered local television service, and promoted financial assistance for rural areas. It also mandated clear signals, and made high-speed Internet access a priority.

The problem of finding a provider to carry local channels in Vermont was solved when Echostar, which owns Dish Network, agreed to carry local stations.

Ed Baron is a lawyer who works for Senator Leahy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says life for satellite dish owners in Vermont is about to improve:

(Baron) “Now they’ll get a clear signal, wherever they’re located in Vermont, the most remote parts of the Northeast Kingdom, or in a valley or behind a hillside, they’ll be able to, if they have a satellite dish, receive every single Vermont television station. And that’s not just great in terms of the programming, but emergency news, a flood, a tornado, some kind of a emergency evacuation requirement or anything of that nature can be rebroadcast.”

(Charnoff) Subscribers to Dish Network are scheduled to begin receiving local broadcast stations this week with a small charge added to their bills. But full local coverage throughout the state remains a problem. Windham and Bennington counties receive local stations from Boston and Albany. Vermont’s other satellite service provider, DirectTV, will not immediately offer local service, because of a shortage of transponder space.

Dish Network is seeking government approval to purchase DirectTV, but the merger remains controversial.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Neal Charnoff.

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