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EchoStar Catches Protesters' Heat

1/20/2002 7:00 PM Eastern

About 250 people assembled by the Rev. Al Sharpton rallied in front of EchoStar Communications Corp.'s government relations office here last Tuesday to protest the company's decision to not carry Word Network.

Sharpton lit into EchoStar and its chairman, Charlie Ergen, for not picking up the urban ministry and gospel channel, and also complained about how blacks are being portrayed on television.

EchoStar, whose blockbuster merger with satellite-TV leader DirecTV Inc. is pending before regulators here, has picked up some enemies recently because of programming business decisions. The Walt Disney Co. currently is embroiled in a court battle over Dish Network's plans to drop Disney's ABC Family network, Disney's attempt to block that move was delayed in court last week. The Mouse is also in the process of trimming staff at ABC Family. Among those leaving: general manager Tracy Lawrence.

Noting that 30 percent of EchoStar viewers are "people of color," Sharpton encouraged the protesters to use their market power to "change the dial and cancel service," and pledged to take his message to the advertising community.

"We've come to tell EchoStar that their star will set and it will not be seen in our galaxy. You will cut us in, or we will cut you out," Sharpton said, drawing cheers from the protesters.

Sharpton said in an interview that he plans a similar protest at EchoStar's Littleton, Colo., headquarters sometime within the next few weeks, and that he would also target cable operators that aren't carrying Word Network.

"We're going to be looking at all of them," Sharpton added.

Sharpton made no mention of EchoStar's planned merger with DirecTV.

Carrying placards, the protesters shouted "No justice, no peace," "We're dissin' the Dish," "Charlie Ergen, go to hell," and several other chants.

EchoStar responded to the rally with a press release that touted two other public-interest channels it recently picked up: CoLours Television Network and StarNet. In the release, the company said it wasn't able to carry Word Network "because the number of qualified applicants exceeded the number of public-interest channels available for 2001."

While the key goal of the rally was to pressure EchoStar to distribute Word Network, Sharpton and other speakers also devoted much of the hour-long protest to complaining about the way blacks are portrayed on television.

"I'm tired of seeing black folks on television shuffling around, scratching their heads, picking stuff out of their butts," Sharpton said. He said he wanted to see preachers, such as those featured on Word Network, on programming distributed by EchoStar.

Word Network is currently carried on DirecTV. EchoStar subscribers will eventually receive Word Network pending approval of the merger of the two DBS companies, EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin said. But it will take two or three years for the company to create a uniform programming lineup, he added.

Launched in February 2000, Word Network counts about 4.5 million cable subscribers, mostly on AT&T Broadband and Time Warner Cable digital systems, vice president of marketing Betsy Kellman said. Comcast Corp., Cox Communication Inc. and Insight Communications Co. are also affiliates. The network also reaches around 6 million broadcast viewers, she said.

The non-profit network is ad free, generating most of its revenue from ministers who pay for broadcast of their sermons. Cable and satellite distributors are offered the channel for free, Kellman added.

She said that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who hosts a live program on Word each Saturday, helped bring Sharpton and his National Action Network into the EchoStar battle after the satellite company passed on Word Network.

The National Action Network announced on Friday that it plans another protest on Jan. 28 outside the Washington offices of EchoStar and Credit Suisse First Boston — one of its financial backers. Civil rights activists Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King III will attend both protests, the group said.

FAMILY BID PUT OFF

Also last week, a judge postponed a hearing on ABC Family's bid to get an injunction barring EchoStar from dropping it.

U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess, over the objections of ABC Family, agreed to the postponement requested by EchoStar. The hearing, scheduled for Jan. 17, will now be held March 11. The direct-satellite service provider wants more time so it can prepare discovery for the hearing.

Feess extended a temporary restraining order that prevents EchoStar from taking ABC Family off its service in the interim. ABC Family and its owner, Disney, are suing to stop the DBS company from dropping the programming service from Dish Network.

ABC Family filed an objection to the delay, alleging that EchoStar wants to conduct "a limitless, broad-ranging fishing expedition before a final decision on the preliminary injunction is made."

Both sides have been waging a nasty public battle in the dispute, with EchoStar charging that Disney is trying to jack up license fees and Disney saying it is only seeking price increases for ABC Family that are permitted by an existing contract.

Disney began handing out pink slips at ABC Family last week. One of those going will be Eytan Keller, who had been in charge of ABC Family's reality programming. John Burns, the channel's president of distribution, is also expected to leave, since ABC Cable Networks' affiliate sales team will handle distribution for ABC Family.

According to several sources, Tracy Lawrence, exiting ABC Family general manager, is talking to New Urban Entertainment Television — the African-American-targeted network that's trying to gain traction — about joining it as president. Lawrence declined to comment last week.

Lawrence, a veteran of Nickelodeon, came to then-Fox Family in July 1999, as general manager of two digital networks that were planned, the boyzChannel and girlzChannel. Those diginets were shelved, but in May 2000 she was promoted to the newly created post of general manager of Fox Family.

"I'm proud of what I accomplished at ABC Family and I'm looking forward to the next step in my career," said Lawrence, who won the Vanguard Award for young leadership last year.

NUE-TV, whose initial investors included music maven Quincy Jones and cable executive Leo J. Hindery Jr., has been seeking financing to keep itself running. African-American radio giant Radio One Inc. has been looking into investing in the 10 million-subscriber network.

Disney is expected to lay off about 300 ABC Family employees, roughly half its staff. A spokeswoman for ABC — that network is essentially running ABC Family — couldn't be reached for comment last week. R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this report.

September