Editorial: Regulators rise to a challenge

Apr 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Kevin Martin don’t often take the same side on a controversial ruling. But Copps, a Democrat, and Martin, a Republican, found themselves in agreement earlier this month in a case involving direct broadcast satellite provider EchoStar Communications.
EchoStar is seeking federal approval for its buyout of satellite competitor DirecTV-a move that would set up EchoStar as the dominant satellite provider in the United States. Meanwhile, the company has been trying to wiggle its way around the government’s satellite must-carry rules, which state that a satellite provider must offer all the local stations in any market where it offers any of the local stations.
EchoStar’s tactics under the leadership of fiery Chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen have long angered broadcasters, the cable business, government regulators and others, as Mr. Ergen has gained a reputation for being a hard-nosed negotiator and a man who likes to do things his own way. His strategy on must-carry is a prime example.
EchoStar came up with something called the “two-dish plan,” under which subscribers would need two separate satellite dishes to receive the full complement of local broadcast signals. Contained within its proposal to the Federal Communications Commission was the not-too-subtle suggestion that EchoStar would like to get the go-ahead to buy DirecTV before it puts all local stations on a single dish.
The plan was rejected a few weeks ago by the FCC’s Media Bureau, which said the practical effect of the two-dish option might be to make some stations unavailable to customers.
But the bureau gave EchoStar plenty of leeway, saying maybe all the company would have to do to make the plan acceptable would be to educate customers about the two-dish option. It also gave the company the option of applying for a nice, leisurely extension, effectively putting off any need to deal with must-carry until after the fate of the DirecTV merger is determined.
That’s where Commissioners Copps and Martin came in. On April 10, the two regulators issued a joint statement condemning the Media Bureau’s relaxed stance on EchoStar. Their unified front, an encouraging sign from an FCC that has produced precious few encouraging signs in recent months, makes it unlikely that Mr. Ergen’s firm will be able to skirt the must-carry law. It also serves notice that EchoStar might have a fight on its hands for approval of the DirecTV deal.
Given the current mood in Washington, where deregulation is all the vogue and political ideology all too often trumps consumer interest, it is refreshing to see Mr. Copps and Mr. Martin break the mold. Their position sends an important signal to Mr. Ergen and others who would impose their expansionist corporate visions on an unwilling public: The FCC is more than a paper tiger. And even in 2002, the institutions that have been put in place to protect the public are still capable of doing just that.