AT&T Seeks Delay of Carriage License Sunset, Citing Pandemic

AT&T is telling Congress that this week it will begin notifying thousands of its DirecTV subs that they will lose access to network affiliate TV stations over the satellite service beginning June 1, as Congress mandated.

Those include rural viewers who are now socially as well as geographically isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the truckers providing a medical supply and food lifeline.

At the same time, AT&T is asking for an extension of that deadline until Jan. 1, 2021, rather than having to cut off the signals during the pandemic.

That is according to a letter AT&T was circulating on the Hill, a copy of which was obtained by Multichannel News.

Related: STELAR to Sunset Dec. 31

Congress declined to renew the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reathorization (STELAR), which allowed satellite operators to import distant network TV station signals to viewers who lacked them, including truckers, RV users and tailgaters on the go, short markets lacking one or more affiliate, and viewers whose market had an affiliate but who could not get a viewable signal. It got those signals at a blanket license rate, and did not have to negotiate with TV stations for them, which it now must do, and has been trying to do, said AT&T.

Related: CRS Report Connects Dots Between STELAR Sunset and Blackouts

But the legislation extended the compulsory license for truckers, RV users and tailgaters and those in short markets, until May 31, 2020, so that deadline is fast approaching.

In the letter, AT&T pointed out it fought the sunset, and said it has been negotiating carriage with the networks, but have yet to reach definitive agreements that "would preserve all subscribers’ current programming." AT&T also said it would be fine with getting a temporary extension from the networks to ensure its subs continued access to critical news and information during the pandemic, but that has not happened either.

Broadcasters, when they were pushing for a STELAR sunset, did express their willingness to provide a glide path for the sunset. But they also said that AT&T could solve the issue and get a permanent blanket license by serving the last dozen or so markets with local signals as Dish does.

Satellite operators don't have must-carry obligations to deliver local signals, as cable operators do, but if they choose to they must deliver all stations in a market. AT&T does not put those smallest-market stations on DirecTV, instead offering those subs a way to integrate the over-the-air signals into their service. 

Related: Deal Struck on STELAR Successor Bills

A copy of the body of the AT&T letter is reprinted below, though presumably the "you may remember" was a rhetorical opening since the every-five-year renewal of STELAR has been a hot-button issue for years:

"You may remember that late last year Congress decided not to renew key provisions of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR), which allowed satellite companies like DirecTV to provide certain customers access to out-of-market local network broadcast stations.

"Since your constituents may be impacted, I wanted to let you know that next week we will begin notifying thousands of DirecTV subscribers that, as a result of this statutory change, they will lose access to network channels on June 1.

"DirecTV subscribers that currently receive a distant network signal could lose access to ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and the CW, including: "Tens of thousands of DirecTV subscribers who either (1) live in rural 'short' markets, which are missing a local network channel [markets lacking one ore more network affiliate rather than ones where the signal is not sufficiently strong to be considered viewable], or (2) commercial truckers and RVs enthusiasts. These unique subscribers presently have no other way to obtain this network programming except through distant signals.

"Hundreds of thousands of additional DirecTV subscribers who have relied on other exemptions in the Copyright Act to obtain distant network programming for years.

"Approximately 11,000 DirecTV subscribers in the twelve rural DMAs in which DirecTV does not offer local satellite channels. These subscribers will lose access to all their network programming.

"Unfortunately, this means disrupting these customers’ service and access to important news and entertainment during this time of emergency. Long-haul truckers that are delivering critical medical and emergency supplies will lose access to network programming they rely upon for news and entertainment. Customers that may wish to change service providers will be forced to do so in the middle of this health pandemic, with many call centers understaffed and some providers limiting in-home installations.

"We know this is frustrating for customers, and we fought against this change in Congress. We are therefore offering credits for the dropped channels and we are in discussions with the networks to keep these channels up. During the STELAR debate last year, all 'big four' networks publicly told Congress they would ensure a smooth transition for customers losing access to distant network signals. We have attempted to take up the networks on this commitment and will continue to negotiate with them to try to find a solution that would preserve as much of our subscribers’ current programming as possible. Unfortunately, those talks, while ongoing, have not yet resulted in definitive agreements and none of the networks have offered a solution that would preserve all subscribers’ current programming. Of course, nothing prevents broadcasters from agreeing to authorize satellite providers to carry distant signals on a temporary basis to ensure no interruption of critical news and information and to allow time for a smoother transition for already-anxious consumers. To date, they have been unwilling to do so.

"Congress can avoid having customers deal with these issues during this pandemic by delaying the new law’s June 1 effective date until January 1, 2021," AT&T said. 

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.