Senate Commerce Committee Passes STELA

The Senate Commerce Committee wasted no time Thursday passing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), its version of the satellite reauthorization bill.

That came by voice vote as part of a package of bills that were fast-tracked through the process so legislators could meet other commitments.

The bill extends satellite operators' license to carry distant out-of-market network TV station signals for viewers who can't received a viewable signal from their in-market

The language of the bill has changed to reflect the switch to digital TV, like the Senate Judiciary version requires the FCC to study whether the license should be phased out in favor of marketplace negotiations.

It does not mandate or incentivize local service in smaller markets where local stations aren't delivered, but Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-Va.) said that was not the end of the story. "I have heard from colleagues about their desire from colleagues to incentivize satellite carriers to provide more local programming in rural markets and I agree with that. As we merge the Commerce Committee bill with the judiciary's part of the reauthorization, I will make this one of my highest priorities."

The Judiciary version does not have a local-into-local incentive, though a House version does.

As reported by B&C, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) backed off from her amendment that would have mandated that DISH and DirecTV deliver local-into-local signals to all 210 markets within three years. Instead, the bill contains a mandate to the FCC to conduct a study of whether the lack of service to the remaining 30 or so markets is a matter of satellite capacity or economics.

But McCaskill said the issue should not be forgotten, and Rockefeller said it would not be. "This matter really is important. It is just stunning that all of a sudden you start hearing from people that are getting ABC out of New York in West Virginia and they're not getting anything local, and it is extremely frustrating." He likened it to the fear Congress had with DTV that screens would go black, adding that some did. "This is something we need to correct, and be hard-nosed about it and push."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) withdrew an amendment that would have allowed satellite operators to deliver New Mexico stations to viewers who are currently only receiving out-of-state versions of those affiliates because of the way the Nielsen market is structured.

That mirrored the withdrawal of similar bills by his colleagues in the Judiciary committee with issues in their particular states. A handful of states were taken care of in a previous incarnation of the bill's reauthorization, which has led others to seek similar carve-outs.

The bill must still be reconciled with a Senate Judiciary version that includes a provision fixing so-called short markets, where a market lacks one or more network affiliate. Then that must be voted on in the full Senate, then conferenced with a House version, which must be reconciled between Commerce and Judiciary versions there and voted in the full House.

That all needs to happen by the end of the year or the license expires.

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.