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Broadcasters Say No To Importing Adjacent-Market Signals

Posted at 6:30 PM ET, April 14, 2009

Broadcasters and satellite TV operators continue to spar over proposals, backed by satellite companies, to allow for the importation of adjacent-market TV station signals to so-called split markets. (See related story, "Boucher: Negotiated Solution to Delivering Signals to Split Markets Necessary ")

Broadcasters argue it is unnecessary to fix the issue of importing news, weather and other local programming, and could upset the retransmission consent system by allowing satellite operators to play one station off another.

The most recent letter was sent by the CBS and NBC affiliate associations to the lead legislators on the House and Senate committees overseeing the reauthorization of the bill that provides a blanket license for satellite operators to deliver distant TV station signals.

The broadcasters argue that, far from the "modest reform proposal" the satellite carriers characterized in their own letter to the legislators last week, allowing adjacent-market importation would affect almost half the markets in the U.S. and would "undercut the localized broadcast services relied on by hundreds of millions of Americans."

The satellite broadcasters had suggested that basing the importation of signals on Nielsen DMA's that sometimes cross state lines was arbitrary and a relic of a bygone era. Broadcasters countered that Nielsen DMA's are instead based on current viewing patterns and are regularly updated.

While satellite operators say changing the DMA system would not affect the retransmission consent fees satellite operators pay for some local stations, broadcasters disagree.

"It is easy to imagine that if this legislation passed, Dish or DirecTV could undercut the bargaining position of television stations in Washington, D.C., in retransmission negotiations by threatening to bring in the signals of affiliated stations in Richmond, including popular network and syndicated programming, unless the Washington stations accepted lower retransmission consent fees," the CBS and NBC affiliate associations argued.

Satellite operators have argued that allowing, say, the importation of nearby Colorado stations to the two Colorado counties in the Albuquerque DMA will provide those "stranded" counties with their own news and weather, billing it as a "pro-localism" proposal.

The broadcasters say that local, in-market stations, even from across the border, are more likely to provide coverage of weather emergencies than out-of-market but in-state stations. Amarillo, Tex., stations, they point out, are 85 miles from the Oklahoma Panhandle, compared to Oklahoma City stations 335 miles away.

Broadcasters also point out that local news and weather can already be imported, so long as the network programming is blacked out so as not to compete with in-market programming it duplicates. They also said they were willing to negotiate with satellite carriers over filling in the blacked-out portions with other programs (just not ones that duplicate in-market stations), as it points out a number of cable operators are already doing.

It is not yet clear whether cable split-markets would be included in any proposed congressional fix. According to one source, cable could be excluded to keep the bill as narrowly focused as possible. House Communications, Internet and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA), one of the recipients of the letter, has said he wanted the bill to be narrow, and not to include related issues such as retransmission consent reform. But when asked by B&C whether cable would be included, he did not commit either way.

He has also suggested the split-market problem would need to be addressed, but has not said how.

The American Cable Association's position is that if satellite operators are allowed to import adjacent-market signals into split markets, medium-sized and smaller cable operators, which ACA represents, should have the same opportunity. 

John Eggerton
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.