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Echostar vs. Viacom

I'm a Dish Network subscriber and as I was watching television Sunday evening I saw an unusual notice start scrolling across the bottom of the screen… and then it was replaced by a horizontal black bar for several seconds, until (apparently) the message finished and the bar was removed. I saw this occur on both Spike TV and on Comedy Central, so I knew something significant was happening.

Intrigued, I went to the internet and quickly learned what it's all about:

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--Echostar Communications Corp. (DISH) will drop the top-rated CBS network from its satellite television lineup rather than accede to demands of the network's owner, Viacom Inc. (VIA, VIAB), says Charles Ergen, Echostar chairman and chief executive.

"This is extortion at the highest level," Ergen told reporters Thursday following a speech sponsored by the free-market think-tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "Viacom has crossed the line."

The fight has gotten so nasty that Viacom channels are inserting the scrolling message directly into their video feed, and Echostar is responding by blocking the message! Cap'n Arbyte gives his hearty approval to these tactics — they give an otherwise dry legal/financial story a swashbuckling flavor.

It doesn't look like this has hit many blogs yet (though there is this) but you can be sure it will be Big News if Echostar does pull the Viacom channels on Monday night. I can't tell from the news story if the Viacom channels would be gone nationwide or only in the 15 markets where there isn't an independent CBS affiliate.

I haven't taken a side in this fight yet. I'd like to be on Echostar's side because in (apparently, somehow) related action they're trying to get a regulatory burden in the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act lowered, over Viacom's objections. On the other hand the only reason they're still carrying Viacom channels today is because they filed an antitrust suit against Viacom. I like the gutsy declaration by the Echostar CEO that he'd rather drop the channels than give in, but at the moment it doesn't look like either side is clean enough to deserve support.

But I'll be watching. Unless the channels go blank.


UPDATE 2004-03-10 06:15:24 UTC: Echostar is no longer broadcasting the Viacom channels. News here. Importantly, and properly, Dish Network will credit customers' bills $1/mo. during the channel outage. In a particularly cool move, they're advertising alternatives to the lost Viacom channels. :)

Tiny Island