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DISH Network files suit in Las Vegas against FCC to block PBS law

Updated Thursday, July 1, 2010 | 5:25 p.m.

Satellite TV company DISH Network Corp. sued the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday in a bid to block enforcement of a law requiring it to carry the high definition programming of public television stations around the country.

DISH Network, based in Englewood, Colo., filed the suit in Las Vegas in U.S. District Court for Nevada, where the company is incorporated.

Attorneys for DISH Network sought in the suit a restraining order and injunction blocking enforcement of the law, called the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010, which was signed into law on May 27.

DISH Network claims the law violates its constitutional rights by putting the government in the position of deciding what channels it will offer subscribers.

"The 'PBS HD Mandate' is designed to coerce DISH into giving preferential treatment to programming that the government prefers, rather than leaving DISH to decide for itself how best to serve its subscribers with the programming choices that they want," the lawsuit charges. "Until this law was enacted, DISH was largely free to decide which local stations it would offer in high-definition, or 'HD,' format, which uses triple the bandwidth of a standard-definition format.

"DISH has traditionally exercised that editorial discretion to determine how to use its limited satellite bandwidth based upon its assessment of consumer demand. Congress has now stepped in to override DISH's editorial choice with a mandate to carry local Public Broadcasting Service ("PBS") stations in HD format, because Congress believes that this government-sponsored speech is more valuable to DISH's subscribers than other programs that DISH might offer in HD or other uses to which DISH might put its scarce bandwidth," the suit says.

An FCC spokeswoman said the FCC would have no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

Kurt Mische, president of public station KNPB in Reno, said the DISH Network lawsuit was typical of the company's bias against local programming.

He said DISH has long favored "putting up a national feed from the East Coast, which doesn't work well for us on the West Coast."

"It's very disappointing," Mische said of the lawsuit.

In contrast, cable TV companies and satellite competitor DirecTV have embraced carrying high definition local PBS programming, Mische said.

"DISH is the only holdout," said Mische, whose station has three digital channels and serves some 180,000 viewers in Northern Nevada and Northern California.

Mische said a majority of the KNPB viewers receive its digital, or high definition, programming.

Tom Axtell, general manager at Vegas PBS, which reaches 465,000 viewers, offered similar criticism of DISH Network.

He said the station regularly receives calls from DISH Network subscribers whom Axtell says have incorrectly been told by DISH Network that they can’t see Vegas PBS high definition programming because of technical problems.

In fact, DISH Network does not carry the Vegas PBS high definition signal, Axtell said.

"We are deeply offended by the deliberately misleading conduct of this company," Axtell said, adding there are emergency response and homeland security issues involved since public television stations are part of the nation’s emergency communications system.

Congressional commentary on the legislation indicated the PBS high-definition mandate was not a key issue in the bill. Legislators, rather, pointed out the bill speeds up the process by which satellite TV companies must carry local programming.

In some rural parts of the country, satellite – rather than cable – is the primary source of programming.

"Now, with this new law, more local channel options will be available to Tennesseans," Tennessee congressman John Tanner said in a June 7 press release.

"For example, as a result of (the law) DISH Network has announced it now offers local programming via satellite to approximately 70,000 households located in the Jackson (Tenn.) media market," his press release said.

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