Affiliate Chiefs Brand STAVRA Retrans Provisions 'Patently Unfair'

In a letter to Commerce chair Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) on behalf of their 600-plus TV station members, the heads of the ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliate boards said they appreciated the news this week that the "Local Choice" retrans remake proposal had been pulled from the bill, but said there were still "highly controversial provisions" in STAVRA that would undermine access to free TV.

Those include barring joint retransmission consent negotiations by independently owned TV stations, and not just in the same market; not allowing retrans agreements to limit the ability of cable or satellite ops to carry significantly viewed out-of-market stations; in the case of retrans blackouts, allowing the FCC to seek info from MVPDs and broadcasters about whether they committed per se violations of good faith negotiations; and directing the FCC to conduct a rulemaking on whether certain practices, like blocking online video content, are a per se violation of good faith and how best to update the "totality of circumstances test" to encourage both broadcasters and MVPDs to reach a retrans agreement.

"The draft bill is problematic because it asserts unprecedented extension of FCC regulatory authority over private marketplace negotiations," the station execs argue, "a step that is contrary to the public interest since it would impede the ability of local broadcast stations to compete in a highly competitive video marketplace for popular national entertainment and sports programming."

They say its remaining retrans provisions single out broadcasters for "enhanced regulatory treatment," which is "patently unfair, discriminatory and anti-competitive."

The Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA) is the Senate Commerce Committee version of a satellite bill that must pass by the end of the year or the license that lets satellite operators import distant network-affiliated TV signals into markets without their own viewable version sunsets. It is scheduled for a mark-up (amendments) and vote by the committee Sept. 17.

"It's amusing that broadcasters are suddenly concerned about what's 'fair,'" said Brian Frederick, spokesman for the American Television Alliance, which includes cable and satellite operators pushing for retrans reform. "Is it fair for customers to get caught in the middle of retrans negotiations? Is it fair that consumers end up paying higher pay-tv bills because of old rules? Is it fair that the broadcasters are given billions of dollars of spectrum yet are utterly dependent on pay-tv to get their signal to 90% of Americans?"

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.