Senate Judiciary Issues STELA Bill

As expected, Senate Judiciary Committee leadership Tuesday released a two-page version of the Satellite Television Extension & Localism Act (STELA) that would extend the law for five more years, make some technical changes--adding a "the" here, substituting a "paragraph" for a "clause" there--and nothing else.

The bill is a bipartisan offering from Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Leahy signaled he would bring the bill up in committee later this month. The committee held a hearing on STELA in March.

STELA renews the compulsory license that allows satellite operators to deliver distant network TV station signals to viewers who can't get local versions over the air and renews the FCC's authority to enforce good faith retransmission consent negotiations.

Cable ops want Congress to address retrans reforms in STELA, and were successful in getting some of what they wanted in a House version that passed the Energy & Commerce Committee. Broadcasters would like to see that version stripped down to match the Senate bill.

Some version of STELA has to pass by the end of this year or the license sunsets. The last time the license was reauthorized--in 2009--Congress actually missed the deadline, had to make the license retroactive, and reached out to content owners essentially asking them to treat the license as though it had been renewed while Congress worked on getting it done--which it finally did in spring 2010.

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith was not pleased with the House E&C version, which would prevent coordinated retransmission consent negotiations, but was happy with the "clean" bill from Leahy and Grassley.

"NAB applauds the narrow STELA reauthorization bill introduced today by Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley," he said in a statement. "This legislation ensures that communities across America will continue to benefit from local broadcast television's indispensable news, entertainment and lifeline programming. Further, this bill enables the satellite industry to serve rural America without undermining consumers' uniquely free over-the-air access to broadcast programming, particularly those viewers who are traditionally underserved by other mediums. NAB thanks Sens. Leahy and Grassley for their serious approach to this reauthorization and producing a bill that can garner the support of all stakeholders. We encourage its swift passage."

The American Television Alliance, representing cable and satellite operators, has been pushing hard for retrans reforms on STELA. “In the past 20 years, there has never been a ‘clean’ version of STELA because our video laws cannot keep up with changing technology,” ATVA said. The retransmission consent system is now more broken than ever and STELA is the best opportunity to help provide consumers with relief from skyrocketing retrans fees and blackouts. We look forward to working with all four House and Senate committees of jurisdiction for meaningful retransmission consent reform.”

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.