THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Station stew: Getting network channels tugs technicalities

Last week, while we were investigating a dispute between Sam McKelvey of Crozet and satellite television provider DirecTV over a $240.83 termination charge, DirectTV's PR manager, Vaughn Carter, suggested that an article about satellite providers and network programming in Charlottesville might serve Hook readers better than one focused on McKelvey.

Given McKelvey's problem, I thought that was a good idea. As it turned out, my further investigation into the matter cast more light on McKelvey's case and resulted in some good news for him– DirecTV will be canceling the disputed charge.

Because DirectTV does not carry Charlottesville stations, under Federal law it can provide network stations from other places– or Distant Network Service (DNS) in the parlance of the trade– only to viewers who are "underserved" by the local stations. 

According to the law, "underserved" describes a customer who "cannot receive, through use of a conventional, stationary, outdoor rooftop antennae, an over-the-air network signal of Grade B intensity."  

Signal strength is determined according to a computer and other technical equipment, not experience, so like many things governmental, customers' actual results may vary. Someone may be unable to view a station on his set but still not be considered "underserved" under the law's definition.

In fact, according to Jeremy Settle, news director for CBS-19 and the FOX and ABC affiliates, relatively few residents in the area would be considered "underserved" under this definition, although exact numbers are not available.

Even if a viewer is not "underserved," though, the local affiliates can grant a waiver for viewers to receive DNS. However, they rarely do, according to Settle. 

In practical terms, this means that DirecTV is unlikely to be able to provide network programming to a significant number of viewers in our area, McKelvey among them.

While McKelvey's complaint against DirecTV involved several issues and factual disputes, the crux of it was that he believed he would get network programming with his DirecTV system, and so he thought he should not be charged a termination fee for canceling when he found out he couldn't. 

Did DirecTV's sales people lead McKelvey to believe he would get network programming, or was it a case, as Carter suggested last week, of McKelvey misunderstanding what he was told by DirecTV's reps? 

There's obviously no way to determine what happened with absolute certainty. With that in mind, I called SATEX, an "Authorized DirecTV Dealer," to see what they would tell me about network programming. I told them network programming was very important to me. First, they told me DirecTV would provide me with local stations– but after some prodding, they checked and discovered that was not the case. They then assured me DirecTV could provide substitute network stations from New York.

I talked all this over with DirecTV's Carter. Calling McKelvey's situation "unusual," he said the highly technical and complex rules regarding DNS service raised the possibility that McKelvey was not provided with accurate information regarding the availability of DNS, and that warranted re-evaluation of the earlier decision. 

I applaud their action and their willingness to continue investigating McKelvey's situation along with me.

Meanwhile, until DirecTV decides to carry our local stations, anyone who wants network programming and who's considering contracting for a DirecTV system should understand that eligibility to receive stations from out of town is a complex determination. Potential subscribers should be sure to clarify in writing that they can cancel without penalty if it turns out they can't receive DNS. It can save DirecTV and customers trouble down the road.