Maine Senators Diss Distant-Signal License

The Maine Senate delegation is calling out DirecTV and parent AT&T for importing TV station distant signals into Presque Isle, Maine, rather than delivering the local stations.

Unlike cable operators, satellite operators don't have to carry local TV stations, though if they carry one they must carry all.

Presque Isle is one of a dozen of the smallest markets where DirecTV has chosen not to carry the stations.

Related: Judiciary Seeks STELAR Info from DBS

That doesn't sit well with Sens. Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I), who wrote Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committee leaders this week to make that point. Judiciary and Commerce are the relevant committees that will be considering whether to renew the satellite compulsory license that allows DBS operators to deliver distant signals to markets where they choose not to carry the local signal, or markets that lack a network affiliate that DirecTV wants to deliver to them.

Collins and King signaled they think it is time for the license to sunset. "As your Committees deliberate whether STELAR’s distant signal statutory license provisions should sunset as originally intended," they said, "we are concerned that this license has not only outlived its usefulness, but now provides a below-market incentive for AT&T/DIRECTV to deny viewers in Northern Maine the in-state coverage they desire and deserve."

Outlived its usefulness because when it passed 30 years ago, they said, "it was conceived to allow fledgling s1atellite companies the ability to compete with large cable companies, and to overcome technological roadblocks which made it impossible for some subscribers to receive local network programming. None of those roadblocks exist today."

Satellite operators use spot beams to deliver local-into-local, so it is not just the case of flipping a switch, which is why the FCC grants satellite operators a waiver of market modification requests in cases of technical infeasibility. But broadcasters have pointed out that Dish has been able to deliver so-called local-into-local in all 210 markets.

The Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELAR) legislation that authorizes that distant signal compulsory license expires every five years unless re-authorized by Congress.

"Although there is no technological limitation, AT&T/DirecTV is providing these subscribers with broadcast channels from outside the state rather than those from more local broadcast stations in Presque Isle or even the Bangor or Portland-Auburn markets,” the Senators wrote. “This is unacceptable and denies these viewers access to critically important in-state news, weather, and emergency information.”

That is the point the National Association of Broadcasters has been making in pushing for the compulsory license to sunset and for DirecTV to deliver in-market TV stations in those dozen markets, pointing out that Dish does so, something the senators also pointed out.

Satellite and cable operators not only want the license renewed, but made permanent.

"Only the NAB would believe that cutting off nearly one million Americans from their network programming would be a good idea," the American Television Alliance has said. Its member include Dish and the American Cable Association. "Congress needs to renew STELAR to keep their constituents from losing signals that many have had access to for dozens of years."

The Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association frames its support of reauthorizing STELAR as an issue of fairness. It says the license must be renewed so that a largely rural audience can get the same network programming as the rest of the country and will not be deprived of programming they have relied on.

SBCA says that at least 870,000 satellite subs get at least one distant signal from DirecTV or DISH. Letting STELAR sunset would "remove channels from people who legally receive them today..."

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.