Religious Feud Erupts Over Satellite TV Merger Deal

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Cultural conservatives are feuding over the proposed $26 billion merger deal between two big satellite TV firms, DirecTV and EchoStar Communications Corp., and how that deal might affect media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Dave Clark, president of the Texas-based FamilyNET (http://www.familynet.org), recently wrote an op-ed blasting Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition for allying himself with Murdoch in opposition to the merger.

As chairman of News Corp., Murdoch had sought his own merger with DirecTV but was outbid by EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen last year.

"As the former chairman and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, and as a current board member of the NRB, I find it difficult to explain how Rev. Sheldon can voice 'moral concerns' over a merger between EchoStar and DirectTV when those companies have been integral to the dissemination of thousands of family-oriented and religious programs," wrote Clark.

"The effort is part of a campaign by ... Murdoch and ... Sheldon to thwart that merger, to Mr. Murdoch's great potential financial benefit," Clark continued.

"As a religious American, I find the alliance between ... Murdoch and ... Sheldon to be deeply troubling," in part because of the Fox network's programming lineup that includes "Temptation Island," "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska," and "Celebrity Boxing," Clark said. Murdoch's News Corp. owns the Fox Entertainment Group.

Clark supports the merger because he believes it will lead to hundreds of Christian stations being carried on satellite.

Sheldon disagrees and says he's miffed with Clark for the public tongue-lashing.

"I got Dave appointed to his first major national post at ... [Christian Broadcasting Network] University (now Regent University)," said Sheldon. "[I'm] shocked that he hasn't had the courtesy, the intelligence or the decency to call an old friend" before going public with his complaints.

"And these other [religious broadcasters] are very concerned about him," Sheldon added.

Although Sheldon hosted a meeting between Murdoch and other religious broadcasters earlier this year, he denies a coordinated anti-merger campaign with Murdoch.

"There's no substance to it," said Sheldon.

"These people, these ministries-John Hagee, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Richard Roberts and the others-have every right" to speak out against the proposed merger, said Sheldon.

Hagee, Copeland, and two other ministries delivered 485,000 petitions opposing the merger to the U.S. Department of Justice on June 27.

"I'm just shocked that he (Clark) would be so discriminatory to think they don't have a First Amendment right to say what's best for their interests, meaning their ministry," Sheldon continued. "And these men spent their own money. Nobody funded this. They paid their own way here, they did their own mailings to their own people."

While DirecTV and EchoStar have enjoyed strong growth since their inception in the mid-1990s, subscriber growth has recently slowed due to the economic downturn and stiff competition from digital cable, industry analysts say.

DirecTV lost $279 million on sales of $5.55 billion in 2001, compared to EchoStar's loss of $215 million on sales of $ 4 billion.

About 17.7 million American homes get satellite TV, with DirecTV serving 10.56 million compared to EchoStar's 7.16 million. Still, the number of satellite TV subscriptions is dwarfed by cable subscriptions, 104 million households at last count.

Sheldon says he and other religious broadcasters are against the merger because the two satellite companies opposed "must carry" regulations, which require cable systems to retransmit local television stations in order to preserve access to local broadcasts.

"They have fought 'must carry' until the Supreme Court slapped them down" in the 1997 Turner Broadcasting, Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission decision, said Sheldon. "'Must carry' is what made Christian [broadcasting] national" and lifted its visibility in the last 10 to12 years, he said.

The National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), which hosted the meeting with Murdoch at Sheldon's behest, opposes the merger out of fear that the new, combined company would eliminate any satellite television competition in areas of the country not served by cable.

The NRB has also criticized EchoStar's "inclusion of pornographic channels" and "bias" against Christian and family-oriented programming.

Conversely, Clark and others criticized the failed News Corp.-DirecTV merger, saying Murdoch would have had a vested interested in loading the satellite network with Fox programming, regardless of whether viewers wanted it or not.

But in defending Murdoch, Sheldon pointed out that the News Corp. chief does not control the majority of Fox Entertainment stock.

"Fox studio has a long way to go," said Sheldon. "But Rupert doesn't own that outright. He can't control [it]. It's like an adult son." According to Sheldon, even Murdoch admitted he is not happy with the programs offered by Fox's entertainment division.

The fate of the merger will be determined by the DOJ, which is currently weighing the anti-trust implications. A decision is expected sometime in the fall.

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