Public television stations won a legal battle Friday after a federal appeals court upheld a decision to require satellite television providers to carry all local stations if they choose to air any in a particular market.

Barring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision by the three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond gives local public television stations a better chance of being broadcast on direct-to-home satellite services like DirecTV or EchoStar.

Previously, satellite companies could select which public stations to air. Friday's decision makes it mandatory effective New Year's Day that if the satellite companies run one, they must run all public television stations in a particular market. The companies still can opt not to run any.

In September 2000, the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, EchoStar and DirecTV filed a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that its "must-carry" rules violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The companies argued that having to carry all local stations in a market takes up so much of their capacity that it would only allow them to carry the stations in the largest markets, leaving smaller markets without local station carriage.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit in Virginia unanimously rejected the companies' arguments by upholding a June decision by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of Alexandria.

"We hold, as did the district court, that the 'carry one, carry all' rule does not violate either the First Amendment or the other constitutional provisions cited by the satellite carriers," wrote Judge Blane Michael in his opinion.

In June, Lee dismissed a lawsuit brought by the satellite companies ruling that the provisions were constitutional.

The appellate court stated that the carriage provision was a "reasonable, content-neutral restriction on satellite carriers' speech" and served substantial government interests.

The Washington, D.C.-based Association of Public Television Stations lauded the decision Friday.

"Public television has been awarded a victory that will allow Americans to ring in the New Year with more choices in public television stations," said John Lawson, the organization's president and CEO. "This means more quality programming for Americans."