NCTA To Senate: STELA Can Be Used For Retrans, Video Market Changes

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has told the Senate that the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) is an appropriate venue for retrans changes as well as "discrete" video reforms, but that those should not include applying MVPD regs to over-the-top.

In response to the Senate Commerce Committee request for input on STELA reauthorization, NCTA said that another five-year renewal was about right, but with a more technologically-neutral approach that treats functionally equivalent services alike.

"Congress should examine the Act broadly, to ensure that the law does not confer any regulatory advantage or disadvantage based on the use of any particular technology," it told the committee.

The association said that Congress should not extend "existing competitive protections for the traditional video marketplace [the committee's wording] to online video providers."

The FCC is currently considering whether to extend program carriage, access and other protections to over-the-top providers. But NCTA argues the online video space is already competitive and flourishing. "There is no need to extend any provisions of the 1992 Act to online video distributors," it said, but added that if the Congress did extent protections, it must also extend the "commensurate obligations of that Act."

Asked by the committee whether broadcasters who give up spectrum licenses to the incentive auction should still get carriage rights for their programming on cable systems, NCTA's answer was a resounding "No."

In addition to establishing a blanket license to satellite operators to deliver distant network-affiliated TV stations into markets where they are lacking, STELA also gives the FCC the authority to mandate good faith retransmission consent negotiations.

NCTA says as part of the renewal of that provision, Congress should prohibit coordinated negotiations among non-commonly owned stations by making such coordination de facto bad faith negotiating.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is already planning a vote March 31 on a proposal to prevent two or more of the Big Four broadcasters in a market from joint negotiation and require smaller stations to prove their coordinated negotiations are in the public interest.

NCTA finessed some of its answers given the eclectic mix of cable ops and programmers and TV station owners in its ranks. While saying STELA was the right place for some retrans reform, it took no position on various specific retrans changes including mandating consumer refunds during blackouts, interim carriage, prohibiting coordinated negotiations among co-owned stations, preventing broadcasters from blocking online access to content on the Internet, eliminating the sweeps exception that prevents cable ops from removing TV stations during sweeps periods, or preventing retrans deals that require carriage of nonbroadcast programming—like co-owned cable nets.

The trade group did say that requiring cable operators "alone" to carry broadcast stations on the most basic, "must buy" tier was unfair, and that at the least, Congress should limit must-buy stations to must-carry stations. "Retransmission consent stations should not have a government-mandated right to be included in cable operators' 'must buy' basic tier," NCTA said.

NCTA also put in a plug for getting rid of Section 623 rate regulation, eliminating the set-top integration ban.

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.