Senate Judiciary Wades Into STELA

The Senate Judiciary Committee began its consideration of satellite legislation Wednesday with a short and to the point hearing that teed up the key questions about what should and should not be in the bill.

Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that the competitive marketplace had changed since the bill was adopted over 25 years ago, and even just since the switch to digital TV five years ago. Leahy said he recognized that a compulsory license inherently restricts the ability to negotiate a marketplace deal and looked forward to the time when the distant signal license in that bill could sunset, but with 1.56 million people still relying on that license for some or all of their network affiliated TV stations, this was not yet the time.

Leahy himself is a satellite customer, given there is no cable service where he lives and limited broadcast service because it is on the side of a mountain.

Leahy said he would "move forward" on bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), but it was not clear from the hearing what would pass muster with both sides.

The hearing witnesses were evenly divided between those pushing for a clean STELA reauthorization—NAB TV board chair Marci Burdick and Writers Guild of America, West's Ellen Stutzman—and those pushing for retransmission consent and other reforms—Alison Minea from Dish and John Bergmayer from Public Knowledge.

Localism was one of the key themes of the hearing, and broadcasters drew praise for their content from some on the panel. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said broadcasters were an important part of American life, and even media critic and fellow Minnesota Democrat Al Franken said he agreed that broadcasters were "very useful" in emergencies.

Franken and Klobuchar used their time to lay into the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, particularly Franken, who said he strongly opposed it. Bergmayer, the only witness who took the offer to rag on the deal, seconded that, calling it "disastrous" for competition. Minea said Dish had not yet taken a position, pointing out the proposed deal had not even been filed at the commission yet.

TV joint sales agreements (JSAs), which the FCC is planning to limit, got yet more airtime on the Hill—it was a topic of conversation and contention at an FCC budget oversight hearing in the House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee March 25.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked Burdick to weigh in on how JSAs were beneficial—a softball (or more like T-ball) question, though Burdick, a veteran of STELA hearings past, has proved she can play hardball when necessary.

She pointed out that a sharing arrangement involving her CBS affiliate in Wichita had helped Entravision deliver the only Spanish-language newscast in the market—an example FCC commissioner and Kansan Ajit Pai has been using in defense of JSAs—and that in Augusta, Ga., sharing news costs with Media General had allowed her struggling NBC station to continue to do news.

Minea countered that sharing news helicopters and the like were not the problem, but instead when non-coowned stations used those sharing connections to coordinate retrans negotiations. She said that those coordinated retrans could mean that failing to come to a deal meant blackouts on two or three stations in a market, rather than just one, blackouts she said were 100% the fault of broadcasters.

Burdick pointed out that the over-the-air signal was never blacked out. She said the obstacle to viewers cutting the cord due to impasses was the sometimes $400-plus termination fees. Broadcasting is always on, she pointed out.

Minea's focus at the hearing was in trying to get anti-blackout provisions into the STELA bill, preferably standstills and baseball-style arbitration. She also said the distant signal was still needed, particularly for short markets that lacked a full complement of stations.

Burdick argued that if the distant-signal license was to be renewed—NAB doesn't think it necessarily needs to be—it should not become a vehicle—think clown car packed with people—for a host of video reforms.

Hatch also gave Burdick an opportunity to weigh in on the issue of online streaming and retrans. He asked how viewers without cable or satellite might be affected by retrans impasses involving streaming issues.

Burdick said she recognized he was referencing the CBS/Time Warner Cable retrans fight in which CBS limited access to its programming online not only to TWC video customers, but broadband customers as well.

Burdick pointed out that the contract being renewed dated back to 2008, and that the eventual agreement now took into account online. The discussions are now "more robust" than just video rights.

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.