DESPITE THE AVAILABILITY of hundreds of channels, 75 percent of America's TV viewing remains fixed on local stations and network affiliates. Satellite dishes, which rely on nationwide transmission, couldn't give you the local stations—until now. Three weeks ago, President Clinton signed a new law allowing the nation's direct satellite systems, DirecTV and Dish Network, to carry local stations along with national programming.
Good intentions, surely—but the law's 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 congressperson change the law, or your new stations will go bye-bye barely two years after satellite retransmission is authorized.
But let's backtrack: Why do the satellites need to carry all 1,616 US 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 and programming, and weren't wild about receiving shows from multiple time zones and perspectives.
But a much bigger problem was looming: The local stations didn't 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, they hated the idea so much that they 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.
Problem is, there's 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 stations in your local area. If cable only carried 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 there's a limit to the number of channels that systems can carry. The limit isn't 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 were already being used to carry LA's ABC, NBC, and CBS stations—all the satellite have to add is Fox, and presto, LA's on the dish! Of course, if you want to watch WB, UPN, KCET, or any of LA's 20 other local channels, you're still out of luck. These channels should be added eventually, and the companies are working to add the "big" local affiliates to each market's offerings: DirecTV, for instance, now has local-broadcast offerings in LA, New York, Denver, and Washington, and should include Seattle on the list Real Soon Now. But 1,616 US TV stations? (And don't think local concerns are the only ones begging for bandwidth: The FCC also mandates that direct-satellite broadcasters must set aside 4 percent of their channel lineups for public interest programming.)
Scooping up all these signals is itself a major production. First, both DirecTV and Dish have to set up local antennas in each city to pick them up. (And you better pray that their reception will be better than yours.) Then the companies 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 backyard 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.
DirecTV's FIRST PLAN is 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, you'll need to buy two dishes (or a special elliptical dish) to receive signals from the extra satellite. And it's hard to imagine how they'll fit 1,616 new channels, except by compressing them into such a small bandwidth that the quality is significantly degraded. (The heft of the resultant program guide is also something to be feared.) DirecTV also announced last week that they've ordered a fresh new spot-beam satellite, to be launched in late 2001, specifically for local-to-local use. Spot-beam transmission lets the satellite pinpoint a fairly narrow geographic area—a possible solution, but (again) spendy.
There's another little detail the satellite companies wish would go away. The broadcast stations are currently in the process of a $100-billion 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 doesn't yet), then satellite and cable companies would, effectively, have to dump at least seven regular channels for each DTV channel they carry. And don't 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 will soon 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 can only hope they'll get picked up eventually. And you, the consumer? Well, if paying extra each month to pick up "free" TV is a boon—then you're a winner for now.