SBCA to Stations: Use It or Lose It

Saying that it was time to be a little more revolutionary and a little less conservative, the new president of the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association had a message for broadcasters.

Evoking Lincoln's exasperated request of a lethargic General George McClellan, Richard DalBello said: "If you are not going to serve your customers, can we borrow them for a while." His reference was to an effort by the satellite industry to secure the right to import HDTV signals in markets where subscribers can't get a similar signal from a local broadcaster. Broadcasters oppose the move.

Although that is one change he would like to see to the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act, currently being reuthorized, he doesn't want to see too many changes.

DalBello told a Media Institute luncheon audience in Washington Thursday that he feared ithe legislation would become a Christmas tree, too unwieldy to pass in the 20 or so working days left in the current legisative session.

One controversial add-on that could slow the process is a proposal giving satellite operators the ability to offer channels a la carte. The indecency crackdown has helped put wind in a la carte's sails, with some legislators suggesting it as a way to give people more control over the channels coming into their homes. 
Among the additionas DalBello does want on the bill is a rule change that would give satellite a permanent compulsory license, as has cable, rather than another five-year extension, though he conceded that was a long shot.
Also in the "if cable has it we should, too" category was a license that would give satellite companies the ability to provide out-of-market stations to the same viewers cable gets to serve, and a royalty rate adjustment tied to inflation. He pointed to a 1997 adjustment that had resulted in a 350% royalty increase that had to then be pared back by Congress.

When asked if the industry would vigorously defend itself from any FCC or Hill attempts to regulate satellite indecency, DalBello said there were clear Consitutional inhibitions to trying to regulate satellite and cable under the same regime as broadcast. Saying he understood the issue has become a national debate, he said SBCA "wasn't afraid of that debate."

Although DalBello said he was not a front for some secret plan to turn satellite radio into a local service, he did suggest that when technology makes it feasible to mimic local service with national satellite delivery--say in a decade--his industry should not be kept in the "thou shalt not" box.

Broadcasters want to keep the lid on that box, concerned about XM and Sirius satellite radio's launch of local traffic and weather delivered to all their subscribers. Satellite companies are prohibited by the FCC to use their repeater licenses to insert local programming locally, but delivering "local" programming nationally is another kettle of fish, or should that be flock of birds.

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.