|By JEANNINE AVERSA (Associated Press Writer)|
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hundreds of thousands of satellite customers nationwide will no longer be able to watch ``Ally McBeal,'' ``60 Minutes'' and other Fox and CBS shows on their satellite systems after Sunday.
Federal court orders are forcing the cutoffs in a dispute between satellite companies and broadcasters over conditions under which viewers who get their TV from satellite can watch network programs.
Federal law allows satellite companies to provide ``distant'' network signals from other broadcast areas to customers only if those customers can't receive their local stations using rooftop antennas.
The satellite and broadcasting industries have been at odds for years over how to interpret an arcane legal test for determining when a satellite customer can't get a local signal.
Not all satellite TV customers will lose CBS and Fox signals -- only those who the court says weren't legally entitled to receive them.
As a result, barring last-minute legal maneuvers by the satellite companies, roughly 700,000 customers nationwide won't be allowed satellite reception of CBS' and Fox's programs via satellite after Sunday.
DirecTV Inc., the nation's largest satellite TV company, said it began cutting off illegal customers from the CBS and Fox programs late Thursday, shortly after a federal judge in Miami issued a temporary restraining order.
Still, DirecTV spokesman Jeff Torkelson said the company was reviewing its legal options to avert a massive cutoff. ``It's possible we could attempt an appeal, ... but it's not clear whether any action would be taken,'' Torkelson said.
Patrick Morrisey, an attorney for PrimeTime 24, which also must comply with the court-ordered cutoff, said the company plans no last-minute legal challenge.
Broadcasters argue that beaming distant broadcast signals into local markets can hurt local stations' ratings and revenues.
Satellite customers cut off from CBS and Fox will need to get rooftop antennas to watch their local stations.
And Chuck Hewitt, president of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, predicted many will be unable to receive decent pictures from their local Fox or CBS stations.
The dispute is likely to be resolved by Congress, where pending legislation would make it easier for satellite customers to receive distant network programs and their local TV stations.
U.S. District Judge Lenore Nesbitt in Miami issued an order last year requiring PrimeTime 24, a leading satellite TV programming supplier, and its distributors to stop beaming CBS and Fox programs after Sunday to satellite customers who aren't legally entitled to receive them. On Thursday, Nesbitt ordered DirecTV to do the same.
Until recently, DirecTV had been using PrimeTime 24 to provide its customers CBS and Fox programs. DirecTV began carrying these and other networks' signals on its own Thursday -- but the court promptly ordered it to stop providing the CBS and Fox programs to illegal customers.
Another order by the same court will cut off an additional 1.5 million customers from CBS and Fox signals by April 30. None of these orders affect NBC, ABC or other networks' affiliates.
However, Nesbitt set March 8 hearing on requests by all four networks and their affiliates to force DirecTV to stop providing ABC and NBC programs in the future to those customers.