Annoyed by the fact that you can't watch the latest episode of "Friends" or "The X-Files" because of your spiffy new digital satellite dish?
Lawmakers in Washington feel your pain -- and last week took a significant step to do something about it. Members of the House of Representatives passed a bill which had been in the works for more than three years that will allow satellite television providers to carry signals from local TV stations.
The measure, once approved, is expected to go a long way toward removing a major barrier to competition within the cable television industry. Under current rules, providers of digital satellite services have been unable to provide local TV stations to subscribers, forcing those who opted for satellite to spring for another antenna for the tops of their homes if they wished to view local networks.
This, according to direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers, this has been a major impediment to growth of their services, which offer tiers of movie, sports and general programming at rates that often are competitive with cable companies'.
"This legislation is a step in the right direction toward ensuring that satellite TV companies are able to compete on a level playing field with cable," said Eddy W. Hartenstein, president of DBS provider DirecTV, in response to the passage of the bill.
Cable companies, however, have some legitimate concerns as well. Cable firms operate under "must-carry" rules that force them to carry all local signals over their networks. Some satellite carriers have tried to carry only select stations with high viewership over their networks.
The bill includes provisions requiring satellite providers to transmit all local stations in a given market. For that reason, the cable industry did not oppose the measure.
"The lack of local broadcasting programming is the No. 1 reason why consumers aren't willing to subscribe to satellite service and, therefore, are limited to a single competitor: the cable operator," Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who co-authored the bill with Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., said during the hearing last week.
Satellite broadcast accounts for a small but growing chunk of TV viewership. Cable companies together claim about 68 million subscribers nationally, versus less than 10 million for digital satellite services.
Lawmakers at last week's session cited the recent deregulation of cable rates as a prime motivation for their action. Under laws passed in 1996, the Federal Communications Commission gave up most of its regulatory powers over rates for cable services on March 31. Although no major increases have been announced yet, many consumer advocates are concerned that loss of regulation will put cable rates through the roof.
Despite its passage in the House, the measure has a ways to go before becoming law. It must be reconciled with two similar measures in the Senate, and the resulting bill would have to be approved by both bodies before going to the President.