Senate Commerce Meeting With Broadcasters, Cable Ops Over STELA

According to sources, the Senate Commerce Committee is holding meetings with representatives of the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association to talk about reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W.Va.) has said that the committee will start work on the bill when its members return from their home districts in September. He has also signaled he would like to see some video reforms as part of that bill.

Cable operators support getting rid of the must-buy requirement tied to retrans. That is the requirement that cable operators carry TV stations on their most basic tier, in essence requiring subs to take those stations before they can get any other cable services. For broadcasters, that is a nonstarter.

Satellite reform has become one of the battlegrounds in broadcasting and cable's ongoing battle over retrans payments.

Rockefeller is retiring at year's end, so it is possible an initial Commerce bill could contain the provision getting rid of must-buy that cable ops are pushing for, and other reforms, only to eventually be removed in the interests of getting a bill that will pass out the door. That has happened with other STELA reauthorizations, and including them initially could be a nod to the retiring Rockefeller and the issues he is passionate about.

Ranking member Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is also said to be eyeing video reforms, but those could be teed up by him in the next Congress if the Republicans take the Senate, as some lobbyists suggest is a growing possibility.

The House on July 22 passed its version of a satellite reform bill, the STELA Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4572), or STELAR, which renews the compulsory license that allows satellite operators to import distant network TV station signals into markets that don't have one. That version prevents coordinated retransmission consent negotiations between noncommonly owned TV stations in the same market and scraps the ban on integrated cable set tops, which cable ops wanted, and loses the prohibition on cable operators dropping TV station signals if retrans impasses coincide with Nielsen sweeps. Broadcasters have said they could live with those.

Also, in a nod to broadcasters, the bill gives stations forced to unwind joint sales agreements per an FCC decision earlier this year 18 months to do so.

STELA also includes a renewal of the FCC's authority to mandate good faith retrans agreements.

The Senate has yet to pass its version of the bill, but must either adopt this bill language or reconcile its version with the House bill before Dec. 31, when the current blanket license expires.

The bill also charges the FCC with studying FCC's use of Nielsen DMAs and whether there are any alternatives.

A bill that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee was a straight five-year renewal with none of the other targeted video reforms. That is the bill broadcasters have praised, though they won't mind getting that extra time to unwind the JSAs.

Whatever the Senate Commerce Committee does, the bill must pass by the end of the year, or the legislation 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.