- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

Satellite companies are profiting from a dispute between Fox Entertainment Group Inc. and cable provider Cox Communications Inc., which has cut off 260,000 Northern Virginia subscribers from Channel 5.

Residents of Fairfax County, Fredericksburg and parts of Stafford and Spotsylvania counties are crowding bars, buying rabbit ears and mostly switching to satellite dishes from cable so that they can see Channel 5's lineup, which has been off-limits since Saturday.

That lineup includes such popular shows as "Ally McBeal," "The X-Files," "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill" and Channel 5's local news broadcasts.

The dispute will not affect Saturday's Washington Redskins playoff game against the Detroit Lions, which will be shown on ABC. However, football fans will not be able to see the Sunday Dallas Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings game or, if they win Saturday, the Redskins' next playoff game the weekend of Jan. 15-16.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman, Katherine K. Hanley, at-large Democrat, is trying to organize a meeting between the sides at the board's first meeting this year, Jan. 10.

But the supervisors, who recently approved Cox's purchase of former cable provider Media General, have no power to end the dispute.

"I am asking them to come before the board to explain to us and to the public why there is this cavalier disregard for their customers, on both sides," she said.

Informal discussions between Cox and Fox ended yesterday without a resolution.

While the disagreement is hashed out, Northern Virginia viewers are scrambling to come up with alternatives to cable.

All antennas or rabbit ears sold out at Radio Shack at Fairfax Circle Sunday.

"People have been buying them a whole lot," said store manager Shawn Mitchell.

But even with an antenna, Channel 5's signal is fuzzy, she said.

Many TV watchers have been taking advantage of the satellite alternative to cable, said Dick Beville, president of Bell Atlantic Video, which sells satellite services.

The costs in the Washington area are only slightly different. Cable costs $20 to $35 per month in the Washington area, plus a $29 installation fee, Mr. Beville said. Packages for DirecTV one of the area's two biggest satellite sellers range from $20 to $50 with a $49 installation fee. Satellite gives viewers access to hundreds of channels.

"It's a huge plus for us," Mr. Beville said. "It helps us because we carry Channel 5 as part of our satellite service. Clearly there is an opportunity since we have something people want right now that they can't receive."

Sales also have picked up for Colorado-based EchoStar Communications Corp., which has a large portion of Washington's satellite customers.

"I know we've had increasing sales in the Washington area and I'm sure just the fact that the Fox station is not available right now to cable customers has had something to do with that," said company spokeswoman Judianne Atencio.

About 68.5 million people subscribe to cable nationwide, 3.4 million of them in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

In contrast, 12.3 million people have satellite nationwide, with 10.9 of them using EchoStar or DirecTV mini-dishes.

The remainder of customers own large satellite dishes. DirecTV controls the largest portion of the market, with 7.8 million subscribers between it and its Primestar subsidiary.

Los Angeles-based Fox and Atlanta-based Cox's feud comes just a month after satellite customers in metropolitan areas like Washington were allowed to receive local channels for the first time as part of the federal spending bill enacted at the end of November.

Offering local-station programming rounds out the satellite networks' television packages, putting them on par with cable services.

Analysts predicted satellite subscriptions would increase another 500,000 a year and that the industry would add 2.5 million customers a year. Disputes like the one between Cox and Fox can only help those numbers increase.

The dispute between Fox and Cox is over two extra channels Fox is demanding that Cox carry in its new retransmission contract: Movie channel FXM and 24-hour sports channel Fox Sports World.

Nationwide, Cox cut Fox programming for 430,000 cable-TV subscribers in Northern Virginia, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, and Austin, Texas, after the old agreement expired at midnight Saturday. Cox has 6 million subscribers nationwide.

Cox and Fox blame each other for the breakdown in talks, and Fox declined to extend the current agreement for 90 days.

In an open letter to Fox Entertainment's vice president and general manager, Laureen Ong, Cox's General Manager Gary McCollum wrote: "I think it is absolutely shameful that your corporate Fox office would penalize our customers in Northern Virginia and hold them hostage in order to satisfy their national business interests."

Mr. McCollum also asked to deal with Miss Ong directly, because Fox officers in Los Angeles and New York "appear unconcerned about our local customers."

Fox spokesman Tom Tyrer almost echoed Mr. McCollum's concern, but he blamed Cox for the situation.

"We're working under the assumption that Cox has made a business decision that these local TV stations aren't important to their subscribers," he said. "It's hard to say when there will be a resolution."

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