WASHINGTON -- Facing a consumer backlash, major TV broadcasters have agreed to let at least one million satellite TV customers continue receiving network programs for about three more months.
Those customers were supposed to be cut off from CBS and Fox signals by Oct. 8 under a nationwide preliminary injunction the networks obtained in July from a federal court in Miami.
But bowing to mounting pressure, the National Association of Broadcasters announced Friday that CBS and Fox won't enforce the injunction until Jan. 1, to give viewers sufficient time to find other ways to receive network programs -- via cable television or an antenna.
CBS and Fox notified the court about their intention Thursday. They don't need court approval to delay enforcing the injunction, NAB officials said.
The prospects of many satellite customers losing assess to network programs touched a raw nerve in Washington.
Congress' top TV lawmakers -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., who chair the Senate and House Commerce Committees -- asked federal regulators if there was any action they could take to prevent customers from losing network programs. Satellite TV groups, meanwhile, mobilized a campaign with viewers to contact lawmakers and regulators in Washington.
"The key motivation here is ... given the fact that there seemed to be a groundswell of consumer concern over these disconnects without having adequate information, it seemed only appropriate to the plaintiffs that some additional time be granted," said Jeff Baumann, NAB's executive vice president of legal and regulatory affairs.
U.S. District Judge Lenore Nesbitt of the Southern District of Florida had issued the injunction against satellite TV distributor PrimeTime 24 on behalf of CBS and Fox. The networks contended the company was violating copyright law by selling the network programming to satellite viewers.
NAB's Baumann said the networks delayed enforcing the injunction to forestall consumers from blaming "the nasty broadcaster" for the loss of their TV shows. Still, there is nothing requiring PrimeTime 24 to comply with CBS and Fox wishes to wait until Jan. 1 to cut off customers' network signals, he said.
The injunction covers all satellite customers who signed up for CBS and Fox programming after March 11, 1997.
The court has not yet decided whether PrimeTime 24 actually violated the copyright law.
Under the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, satellite companies may not provide customers with network programs if their markets are already served by affiliated TV stations. But the legal standard for determining whether a market is served by an affiliated station is technical and complicated.