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Dish, DirecTV Provide Hill Partial Answers on STELAR

Satellite operators have told the House Judiciary Committee that, for competitive reasons, they can't supply some of the information requested by its bipartisan leadership.

The House Judiciary Committee is drilling down on the renewal--or not--of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR) Act, seeking info from Dish and DirecTV to help make that call.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the chair and ranking member of the committee, respectively, sent letters to the satellite operators last month saying they needed to evaluate "whether the Sec. 119 license should be allowed to sunset" and asked for some specific information on, among other things, the number of subs that receive one or more distant signals and under what license subpart--the four license subparts cover 1) "short" markets* that lack one or more network affiliate, 2) markets where a satellite carrier has chosen not to deliver any local stations (While Dish carries TV stations in all 210 TV markets, DirecTV still has a dozen small markets where it has chosen to deliver none),** 3) markets with grandfathered subs, and 4) signals delivered to truckers, RV's and tailgaters.

Related: NAB Launches Fight Against STELAR Act Renewal

The current license, which allows satellite operators to import distant TV network signals for a blanket fee rather than having to negotiate with individual stations for that carriage--must be extended by the end of 2019 or it goes away (it has a five-year sunset).

In its response to the legislators, Dish said that for competitive reasons, it could not say how many of its subs in short markets--without a full complement of network affiliates--get distant signals or under which license subpart. But it did say that both it and DirecTV combined deliver one or more distant signals to about 870,000 subs.

Related: SBCA Pushes Permanent STELAR Act Renewal

AT&T (DirecTV) likewise remained mum on short markets and the subpart breakdowns, also citing competitive reasons, and echoed the combined 870,000 figure, saying that figure represented viewers "left behind by cable and broadcast providers. Pointing out that cable's distant signal license has no expiration date, AT&T said there was no reason satellite subs "should be threatened with losing their TV service every five years while cable subscribers are not."

While Dish stuck to answering--or not answering--the questions, AT&T put in a plug for making the license permanent as well as taking that "left behind" jab at broadcasters and cable operators.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which is pushing for the sunset and a marketplace license negotiations took the opportunity to jab back.

“NAB continues to believe that STELAR’s distant signal provisions are no longer justified," said spokesman Dennis Wharton. "And that the shrinking number of viewers impacted by this law would be better served by local TV stations rather than out-of-market substitutes. It is disappointing but not surprising that DirecTV and DISH are refusing to provide the House Judiciary Committee with adequate answers to evaluate the impact of this expiring law.”

*In the 2014 STELAR satellite license reauthorization, the FCC extended its potential fix for cable orphan counties--ones placed in Nielsen markets in another state--to satellite carriage as well. Broadcasters or satellite operators or county officials can all petition for the modification. But given the technical challenges, DBS operators have a "where technically feasible" out if they can show it is too tough to deliver the signals.

** Unlike cable operators, who must carry any TV station who elects mandatory carriage over negotiating for retransmission consent, satellite operators are not required to carry any TV station, though if they carry one in a market, they must carry them all. 

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.