Big dish satellite programming

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Morrison – When Dana and Deborah Kelly settled down to watch late-night TV on a cold December night, they received an unsettling surprise.

The NBC affiliate, KUSA- Channel 9, was not available through the 8-foot C-Band satellite dish they’ve relied on for 11 years.

What the couple saw instead was a message stating that they needed to update their TV service. The message included a toll-free number to call.

“We were watching Jay Leno, ” said Deborah Kelly, 54. “Then we got a message that told us to call Superstar to continue receiving service.”

In reality, their call to Superstar Netlink, a supplier of programming to large satellite-dish customers, ended up being a call to Douglas County-based EchoStar Communications’ Dish Network, and an agent ready to sign the Kellys up for new mini -dish service. EchoStar purchased Superstar Netlink in April 2004.

With only 150, 000 C-Band customers across the United States – the exact number in Colorado is not available – the large satellite dishes are dinosaurs. In the early 1990s, there were 2.6 million C-Band users, according to Jimmy Schaeffler, senior multichannel TV analyst for The Carmel Group.

Many programmers, such as Starz, have stopped delivering content to C-Band subscribers because of their dwindling number.

Comcast, the local cable provider, doesn’t have service that reaches the Kellys’ home. And trying to get local channels with a basic antenna or rabbit ears is hit-and-miss.

The couple pays National Programming Service of Indianapolis for 13 channels that they choose themselves a la carte. NPS provides local programming through Superstar Netlink.

The Kellys pay their bill annually – $334.92, about $28 a month – for channels that include HBO, Comedy Central and the Discovery Channel. They have no children and are not interested in a family-based programming package.

“If we switch to Dish, it will cost us $600 a year for channels we don’t want, ” said Dana Kelly, 55. “There are a lot of benefits of getting the channels this way.”

For $611, EchoStar would provide a package of 60 channels, including local Denver stations, for three TV sets, plus HBO.

As the Kellys are being pushed out of a la carte TV selection, there’s strong encouragement at the federal level for cable and small dish providers to offer it.

A la carte channel offerings received support earlier this month from new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin. Cable and satellite companies have flinched at the idea, saying they are dependent on pricing packages to pay for less-popular channels.

The Kellys’ local channels are a “Denver 5” package made up of KUSA, KCNC-Channel 4, KMGH-Channel 7, KWGN- Channel 2 and KDVR-Channel 31. When EchoStar acquired Superstar Netlink, it took on the responsibility of broadcasting Denver stations to C-Band customers, according to company spokesman Marc Lumpkin. EchoStar stopped delivering local content to C-Band subscribers on Dec 5.

“It is no longer economical for us to continue broadcasting to C-Band customers, ” Lumpkin said.

He said C-Band customers can receive all the local channels through Dish Network’s 18-inch dish service. EchoStar is offering C-Band viewers free Dish Network satellite TV equipment, including a digital video recorder, Lumpkin said.

EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen started EchoStar by selling C-Band satellite dishes to residents in rural areas.

National Programming Service did not return several calls for comment, but a statement on its website addressed withdrawal of the Denver 5.

“EchoStar, without notice to NPS as required under their contract, terminated your access to these channels 12/5/2005, ” said the statement. “EchoStar was required to provide 30 days prior written notice before it could terminate their contract and did not.”

Lumpkin said EchoStar has made public statements since the summer saying it would no longer support C-Band programming. In the meantime, the Kellys are able to watch network television by tuning their satellite to stations on the East Coast. They can watch “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” but not local news. They said they might switch to DirecTV or Dish Network, begrudgingly.

Schaeffler said the continued demise of C-Band may accelerate the push toward a la carte pricing, as a majority of those customers have a la carte options. And as telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T enter the cable business, increased competition will offer new pricing opportunities.

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