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Retrans Gripes Get Aired During STELA Hearing

WASHINGTON — As expected, the reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (known as STELA) is shaping up as the chief venue for the ongoing, increasingly heated industry debate over retransmission consent.

That debate ratcheted up last week with the announcement of a discussion draft of retransmission- consent legislation — emphasis on discussion — from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Communications Subcommittee, and at two hearings dealing with satellite compulsory licenses and video regulation in general.

At those hearings, one in the House Judiciary Subcommittee and another in the Communications Subcommittee, multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) and broadcast witnesses took off the gloves, backing up their blows with full-page ads in Capitol Hill newspaper Politico timed to the two hearings.

National Association of Broadcasters witnesses at both hearings accused Time Warner Cable, Dish Network and DirecTV of ginning up blackouts to try to get Washington to weigh in, saying those providers had been involved in 89% of the retransmission-consent disputes over the past couple of years. The pay TV providers are three of the top four MVPDs; the fourth is Comcast.

Dish executive vice president and general counsel R. Stanton Dodge (a member of the retransmission-consent reform advocacy group The American Television Alliance), joined by cable MSO witnesses, countered that broadcasters wrap themselves in localism at every turn but don’t seem to have a problem disenfranchising viewers by pulling signals.

Distributors also hammered broadcasters for fighting a performance fee in radio, while asking for a fee from MVPDs for their own content. A couple of legislators picked up on that theme, notably Mel Watt (D.-N.C.), ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee, who pushed broadcasters on the apparent disconnect and said he would introduce a bill to do away with the compulsory music license and require broadcasters to negotiate for rights to play songs.

At both hearings, legislators agreed that telecommunications regulations were outdated. But the debate over whether to level the field by applying some legacy regulations to new entrants, deregulate traditional services or implement some mixture of both approaches remained unresolved.

House Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R.-Ore.) signaled he planned to circulate a STELA draft by March of next year. The satellite compulsory license expires every five years unless reauthorized; the next expiration date is December 2014.


STELA has become a platform for the retrans debate, which heated up last week in hearings on Capitol Hill and in a draft bill proposed by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

Eshoo’s Offering

WASHINGTON — Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) last week announced draft retransmission-consent legislation, following through on earlier promises to work on a bill that would take aim at blackouts, bundling and sports costs. It bears some resemblance to the a la carte bill introduced earlier in the year by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.). It has no co-sponsors because it is just a draft, and Eshoo suggested it was more along the lines of a series of suggestions to provoke robust debate as Congress considers whether and how to renew the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act. The video distributor bill would:

• Give the Federal Communications Commission explicit statutory authority to grant interim carriage of a brodcast television station during a retransmission-consent negotiation impasse.

• Ensure that a consumer can purchase cable television service without subscribing to the broadcast stations electing retransmission consent.

• Prohibit a station engaged in retransmission-consent negotiations from making its owned or affiliated cable programming a condition for receiving broadcast programming.

• Instruct the FCC to examine whether the blocking of a TV station’s owned or affiliated online content during retransmission-consent negotiation constitutes a failure to negotiate in “good faith.”

• Call for an FCC study of programming costs for regional and national sports networks in the top 20 regional sports markets.

— 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.