Clean Senate Start for STELA

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee leadership has introduced a two-page version of a Satellite Television Extension & Localism Act (STELA) reauthorization bill that was stripped for action.

That was not to the liking of cable providers, who responded that STELA is always more than just the base bill, and that retransmission-consent reform needs to be included.

STELA renews the compulsory license that allows satellite operators to deliver distant-network TV station signals to viewers who can’t get local versions over the air and renews the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to enforce good-faith negotiations over retransmission consent.

The Senate bill would simply extend the law for five more years, make some technical changes — adding a “the” here, substituting a “paragraph” for a “clause” there — and nothing else.

The draft was a bipartisan offering from Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who both suggested they were focused on passage, not on packing the legislation with other provisions.

Leahy signaled he would bring the bill up in committee later this month.

Cable interests want Congress to address retransmission-consent reforms in STELA and were successful in getting some of what they wanted in a House version that passed the Energy & Commerce Committee.

That wish list incuded eliminating the ban on set-tops with integrated conditional-access functions, barring joint retransmission-consent negotiations by TV stations and erasing the current prohibition on cable operators dropping television-station programming during sweeps periods.

Cable would like to preserve those wins in the Senate version. Broadcasters would like to see the House version stripped down to match the Senate draft.

But if past is prologue, the final bill will not be two pages long.

Some version of STELA must pass by the end of this year, or the license will sunset.

The last time the license was reauthorized — in 2009 — Congress actually missed the deadline, had to make the license retroactive and reached out to content owners essentially asking them to treat the license as though it had been renewed as Congress worked on getting it done. The renewal finally came in spring 2010.

Clearly, Leahy does not want a repeat performance.

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith was not pleased with the House Energy & Commerce version, which would prevent coordinated retransmissionconsent negotiations. But he was happy with the “clean” bill from Leahy and Grassley.

“NAB applauds the narrow STELA reauthorization bill introduced today by chairman Leahy and ranking member Grassley,” Smith said last week. “We encourage its swift passage.”

That may be wishful thinking. The “clean” judiciary committee bill is likely the skeleton, but not the fi nal form. Certainly, cable operators are hoping, and lobbying, for more.

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.