NAB Praises STELA Move to Foreclose FCC JSA Limit

The National Association of Broadcasters still questions the need to reauthorize the satellite distant signal blanket license given that local TV stations are being delivered by satellite companies "in nearly every DMA and are a thriving competitive alternative to cable." But that said, NAB also says the draft reauthorization bill that will be the subject of the March 12 hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee is "a product NAB can support."

That is according to the prepared testimony for NAB's witness at the hearing, Marci Burdick, television board chair and senior VP for station owner Schurz Communications.

"Our primary interest in this legislation was to prevent the picking of marketplace winners and losers, which is why we have asked for a clean bill," said Burdick. "We are happy to see that this STELA draft steers clear of these kind of provisions."

Actually the bill does remove the prohibition on cable operators dropping TV stations during sweeps periods and would prevent coordinated retrans negotiations among two independently owned stations in a market unless the cable operator agrees to it. But NAB can apparently live with those given the fact that gone from the draft is a proposal that would have removed the mandate that retrans stations be offered on cable's must-buy basic tier, and the fact that there is a provision that would prevent the FCC from making joint sales agreements (JSAs) attributable, though it is unclear how that could be enforced given that the FCC is planning to vote to do that at the end of this month and the STELA bill likely won't pass until close to the end of the year.

Burdick lent NAB's strong support to the provision that "prevents the FCC from enforcing rules without first collecting empirical data studying the real world impact of JSAs."

While she spends the majority of her testimony promoting the public interest value of JSAs and arguing against tightening that reg—radio JSAs are already attributable over 15% of ad sales—she also made a case for why broadcasters are already more regulated than the competition.

"It can be hard to flip a switch without getting permission from our regulator," she says, pointing to ownership and content restrictions. "While our competitors are often large, national companies with no nationwide ownership caps, we may not own more than one TV station in a market [smaller markets don’t have enough 'voices' to permit duopolies under FCC rules], and not more than 39% nationally. While our competitors may show provocative, cutting edge content at any time of the day, broadcasters live by decency rules that dictate what we may air."

She talks about the "innumerable" regulations broadcasters are subject to, which she says are far more onerous than those on cable and satellite. She identified those as "children’s programming rules, political advertising rules" and a "slew of reports and filings."

She conceded that there are "some benefits" of having to operate in the public interest, but adds that "if Congress opts to remove the benefits of being a broadcaster, then it should only be coupled with the removal of the burdens."

Robert Kenny, spokesman for TVfreedom, the broadcaster coalition pushing back on possible retrans reforms, also weighed in on the eve of the hearing, saying the committee should address retrans issues in the planned communications law revamp targeted for 2015, not STELA, and in any event should not be out to hand cable the keys to the kingdom.

“TVfreedom believes that it is fundamentally critical that any major reforms to the video marketplace are undertaken by lawmakers as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act Update," he said in a statement. "The value and benefits of local TV broadcasting to their viewers should not be lost by lawmakers and policymakers in their efforts to modernize the regulatory landscape in the name of competition and the public interest.  It is difficult to imagine that cable and satellite TV providers need wholesale reforms at the expense of TV broadcasters in the marketplace, especially since they collectively generated more than $107 billion in revenue in 2013.”

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.