If you hear rumors that Echostar Communications Corp. is unhappy about offering a package of channels that are considered family friendly, ignore them. In truth, making Congress happy by providing a family-friendly package is making Echostar very happy.
The reason? At $19.99 a month - $24.99 a month if local channels are included - Echostar's Dishfamily tier is substantially cheaper than comparable packages offered by satellite TV rival DirecTV and one offered by a terrestrial cable competitor, Echostar spokesperson Marc Lumpkin said. As a result, the company's Dishfamily package, which will be launched Feb. 1, is actually "good news for the Dish Network," he told Satellite News.
Both Echostar and rival DirecTV unveiled plans to offer so-called family packages in response to Congressional rumblings about the amount of indecent content available on channels broadcast by satellite and cable companies. The implied threat was that if the content providers cannot clean up their act, then perhaps Washington would do it for them.
"We started looking at this [creating a family-safe program package] when Congress first made the suggestion back in November 2005," said Echostar's Lumpkin. "During that time we told Congress we were interested in offering a family tier, but that we were restricted by our programming contracts from doing that."
Echostar's Dishfamily package comes in at a lower price than competing packages from both DirecTV and cable competitors because it does not require customers to buy more than the 40-odd channels in its package, which includes CNN Headline News, Great American Country and the Weather Channel.
For its part, DirecTV's Family & Children's Channels package, which will be available in mid-April, is priced at $34.99, but its 40 channel lineup includes the Disney Channel, TLC, and the National Geographic channel. Due to launch in mid-April, "we're offering good value for money in the variety of channels we're carrying," said Robert Mercer, DirecTV's director of public relations. "... We answered the call from concerned parents and policy makers, and designed a programming package to meet the needs of families," he said. "What's good for the DirecTV viewer is also good for us."
Neither company would speculate on what impact the offering may have on their subscriber numbers.
Enough To Satisfy Congress?
The availability of the packages is due in part to cooperation between the broadcasters and content providers. Faced with pressure from Kevin Martin, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and Congressional leaders, Echostar's programming partners opted "to give us more leeway to allow us to offer a family tier," Lumpkin said. In plain English, the programmers loosened the rules so that Echostar and DirecTV could make Congress happy, and so that the programmers could shield themselves from Congressional wrath and possible regulation. Who would have thought that the family values fight could end up giving the satellite providers and cable companies more leverage with content providers?
That said, the problem may not yet be fully resolved because Congress does not indicate that it is completely mollified by the offerings from Echostar, DirecTV and cable operators. The proposals took some flack during a Jan. 19 hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The absence of sports channels in both DirecTV's and Echostar's package caused real concern among some committee members, who indicated that their absence could lead to the offerings not being commercially viable. "I don't know why a family has to choose between protecting their children" and watching sports, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. "It almost seems like an invitation to an unmarketable package." Lautenberg's sentiments were echoed by Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who said, "I think you'll find the marketplace is going to want" sports channels.
Fortunately for cable and satellite, their proposals received some support from committee Chair Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Mindful of the legions of lawyers who would happily and expensively fight any Congressional control proposals on First Amendment grounds, Stevens said that the family tiers should be given a chance before Washington takes action.
It's too early to tell if the family tiers will resolve the indecency debate, or whether the issue is just too politically useful for Congress to leave alone. After all, U.S. content providers already allow parents to protect their children from inappropriate programming by providing the capability to lock out certain channels. And then there's the most effective content control device of all -- the power button.
Contact, Mark Lumpkin, Echostar, 303-723-2020; Robert Mercer, DirecTV, 310-726-4683