Senate Passes Satellite Reauthorization Bill

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 station.

 The bill updates
the language 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 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

 As reported byB&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
Virgina 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 conference 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.

While the bill does not deal with local-into-local, split markets--Udall's issue--or short markets, it does contain an amendment that could threaten a local-into-local deal struck by Echostar in the House version.

The satellite operator agreed to deliver to all 210 markets in exchange for being allowed back into the distant network signal delivery business, unless other bandwidth obligations arose.

The Senate Commerce bill has a provision essentially cutting in half the current FCC timetable--from four years to two--for satellite operators to deliver noncommercial stations' HD signals.

DISH commented in a statement that it "continues to have concerns about the practical and constitutional problems associated with the PBS HD mandate."

Not surprisingly, the Association of Public Television Stations say it differently, applauding the provision.

"APTS is pleased with the firm action taken today by the Senate Commerce Committee to end the discriminatory behavior by DISH Network against local public television stations. There is no justification for DISH Network continuing to deny its subscribers the extraordinary brilliance and clarity of public television's high definition broadcasts in local markets all across America," said APTS President/CEO Larry Sidman in a statement.

But he also said APTS would still try to negotiate a private carriage deal, as it has done with DirecTV and cable operators.

The bill also includes an incentive, but not a requirement, that satellite operators carry state public affairs networks--essentially C-SPAN's for state governments.

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.