Senate Judiciary Passes 'Clean' STARA (Formerly STELA)

The Senate Judiciary Committee wasted no time Thursday marking up and passing a clean, two-page, version of legislation reauthorizing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), now, at least in this version, named the Satellite Television Access Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STARA) without any additional video reforms. The bill is a straight, five-year renewal of the compulsory license that allows importation of distant network affiliated TV station signals--which affects about 1.5 million subs without in-market access to a comparable affiliate.

The markup was delayed from last week, when Republicans sought the week delay.

STELA has to be renewed by the end of the year, but the Senate Commerce Committee also has a say in the final bill, which must also be reconciled with a House Energy & Commerce Committee version that does have some video reforms in it, including on retrans and the CableCARD integrated set-top ban.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) suggested Wednesday that there was some support in the Senate for looking at wider video reforms in the STELA bill.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa.), ranking member of the committee and co-author of the bill, conceded the desire of some--that some definitely includes cable operators--to wide STELA's view. "I know a number of telecommunications issues have been raised relative to this bill," said Grassley at the markup, but they are more appropriately handled in the context of a comprehensive communication law overhaul, which the Commerce Committee is considering."

Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was co-author of the bill.

There was one amendment added, without controversy, having to do with updating low power TV service areas related to cable carriage, a change made in 2010 for satellite carriage. He said he had talked with all stakeholders and they were fine with it.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he was still concerned about satellite customers access, or lack of it, to in-state stations carrying local content--like Alabama football. He had, but did not offer, an amendment dealing with the issue after getting assurance from Grassley that the committee leadership would work with him.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) put in a plug for transitioning from the compulsory license to a market-based regime for setting rates, as the U.S. Copyright Office has recommended. "I just hope that members of this committee will begin a serious conversation about how best to phase out the current statutory licensing requirement. I don't think we should wait another five years to take action on this matter."

He pointed out that cable and satellite rates are, as the Copyright Office has said, are significantly below those set in the marketplace.

Broadcasters have said they would be OK with getting rid of the license as well, though they have not pushed hard for that result.

The National Association of Broadcasters has been pushing for the kind of clean bill--no retrans reforms--Judiciary passed, so it was understandably pleased with the result.

"NAB salutes the efforts of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley in forging passage of a unanimous, bipartisan and non-controversial reauthorization of the STELA bill," said NAB President Gordon Smith. "In an era of divided government, the Senate Judiciary Committee approach to STELA offers a clear path to final passage of a satellite TV bill this year. America's local broadcasters pledge our strong support for this bill and look forward to its final adoption by the full Senate."

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.