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‘Local Choice’ Tabled, but Retrans Reforms Remain

WASHINGTON — The “Local Choice” retransmission consent remake being pushed by cable operators was dropped from must-pass satellite legislation by Senate Commerce Committee leaders last week, but broadcasters were hardly out of the woods.

The Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA) is the committee’s version of a satellite bill that must pass by the year-end to survive. Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) had proposed Local Choice to address concerns about blackouts and cable pricing, but the committee last week said the proposal would be pulled in the interest of getting a bill that would pass.

The Local Choice plan would have started in September of 2017 to allow subscribers to select which local stations they want in their pay TV packages, taking MSOs out of TV-station carriage-fee negotiations. Backers of the plan had always conceded the radical proposal was a long shot.

But while broadcasters signaled a partial victory, plenty remained in the bill to keep them hammering at cable operators. At press time, the draft still contained a number of retrans-reform provisions. Broadcasters were also worried that a provision requiring cable operators to carry retrans stations on the must-buy tier could be added. A similar provision was in a draft of the House bill before eventually being removed.

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith said the NAB is “seriously concerned” with the following provisions remaining in the Commerce Committee bill:

• Barring joint retrans negotiations by independently-owned TV stations;

• Not allowing retrans agreements to limit operators’ ability to carry significantly viewed out-of- market stations;

• Allowing the FCC, in the case of retrans blackouts, to seek information from MVPDs and broadcasters about possible per se violations of good-faith negotiations; and

• Directing the FCC to conduct a rulemaking on whether certain practices, like blocking online video, are a violation of good faith.

The American Cable Association, a member of the American Television Alliance that backed Local Choice, said it would be working hard to make sure those provisions get in the bill, which is scheduled for a Sept. 17 markup in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Rockefeller said he wants the bill voted out by next week, which is one of the reasons he struck the flag on Local Choice. The bill still must be reconciled with a Senate Judiciary Committee version and a House-passed version.

If the bill does not pass by year’s end, the compulsory license that allows satellite operators to import distant network-affiliated signals would sunset, as would the FCC’s authority to mandate good-faith retrans negotiations.