Despite the availability of hundreds of channels, an estimated 75 percent of Americas TV viewing remains fixed on local stations and network affiliates. Satellite dishes, which rely on nationwide transmission, couldnt give you the local stations. Until now.
Last week, President Clinton signed a new law allowing the nations direct satellite systems, DirecTV and Dish Network, to carry local stations along with national programming. The good news: Los Angeles is already online. The bad news: The laws requirement to carry all local stations by 2002 is technically infeasible. Short of a series of technological breakthroughs, the satellite carriers must be counting on you to demand that your congressman change the law, or all your new stations will go bye-bye, barely two years after satellite retransmission is authorized.
But let me backtrack. Why do the satellites need to carry all 1,616 U.S. television stations, when many of them are broadcasting the same thing: programming from ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox? In the beginning, satellite broadcasters did carry a handful of local stations, one set from the East Coast and one from the West Coast. Many dish owners, however, wanted their own regional stations, for local news, etc., and were not wild about receiving shows from multiple time zones and perspectives.
But a much bigger problem was looming: The local stations didnt like people watching their "exclusive" network programming on other cities channels. KABC in Los Angeles, for example, just hated the idea that you might watch Politically Incorrect on WABC in New York instead of on Channel 7. In fact, KABC hated the idea so much that it went to court and had these "distant signals" turned off for almost everyone.
Enter "local-into-local." Instead of beaming distant signals, the satellite dish will beam your local TV channels into your dish. Surely no one would object to that! The problem is, theres this little thing called the "Must Carry Rule." Going back to the misty beginnings of cable TV, this law states that your cable company must carry all ã _stations in your local area. If cable carried only the most popular local stations, the ones cable ignored would be at a huge disadvantage, losing more than half their potential audience. "Must Carry" has been through the courts and Congress several times, and it remains the law of the land.
Because satellite broadcasting is a national system, all the channels must be carried on the same system. But theres a limit to the number of channels that systems can carry. The limit isnt hard and fast, because DirecTV and Dish use extensive digital compression and multiple satellites at the same orbital location, to expand their channel capacity as much as possible. Even so, a single orbital slot, which can be reached by a pizza-size stationary dish, is limited to several hundred channels. And all of those channels are already in use!
Fortunately, three of those channels are already being used to carry L.A.s ABC, NBC, and CBS stations . . . all the satellite companies have to add is Fox, and presto! L.A.s on the dish! Of course, if you want to watch WB, UPN, KCET or any of L.A.s 20 other local channels, youre still out of luck. These channels should be added eventually. But 1,616 U.S. TV stations? First, both DirecTV and Dish have to set up local antennas in each city to pick them up. And youd better pray that their reception will be better than yours! Then, they have to beam all these signals back to their central headquarters (near Denver), compress them and send them up to a satellite, just so they can bounce into your back yard about 10 seconds later than the free over-the-air signal the local broadcaster is already providing. It just may be the biggest waste of television bandwidth ever devised!
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DirecTV at present barely has 200 channels. For starters, it plans to use a spare satellite in a different orbital location to handle local broadcasts. Both DirecTV and Dish Network have spare satellites, thanks to buying out their competitors. But in order to benefit, youll need to buy two dishes, or a special elliptical dish, to receive signals from the extra satellite. And its hard to imagine how theyll fit 1,616 new channels, except by compressing them into such a small bandwidth that the quality is significantly degraded.
To give the satellite companies a little breathing room, the deadline for getting all the channels on the dish isnt until 2002. But what happens then? Will the satellite companies cry and scream for you, the consumer, to get the law changed, so they can continue to broadcast only some of the local stations? And if that happens, what does the future hold for the stations that dont get carried?
Theres another little detail the satellite companies wish would go away. The broadcast stations are currently in the process of a $100-billion-dollar upgrade to DTV and HDTV: high-quality digital broadcasting to your rooftop antenna without a satellite. Every station in the country was given another station to broadcast in digital. And a digital channel requires over seven times the bandwidth that a digital satellite (or digital cable) allocates to a regular channel. If Must Carry applied to digital broadcasting (it doesnt yet), then satellite and cable companies would, effectively, have to dump at least seven regular channels for each DTV channel they carry. And dont forget, analog broadcasting is supposed to be phased out, in favor of all-digital television broadcasting, by 2006!
In the meantime, those of us with small dishes in Los Angeles can once again enjoy our local network affiliates via satellite (but without the convenience of the New York stations running the same shows three hours earlier). Cable looks like the big loser in the new law, while the less-popular broadcast stations (at least 20 in Los Angeles) can only hope theyll get picked up eventually. And you, the consumer? Well, if paying an extra $5.95 a month to pick up "free" TV is a boon then youre a winner for now.