Senate Staves Off STAVRA Amendments

WASHINGTON — After all the sound and fury over the Senate version of reauthorizing the satellite compulsory license, the STAVRA (Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act) bill that emerged last week by unanimous voice vote was shorn of most of its entangling amendments, giving both cable operators and broadcasters room to declare various victories.

By the midweek markup of the bill, gone were cable-targeted amendments that would have boosted government oversight of customer service; sicced the FCC on the migration of sports programming from broadcast to cable and the effect of sports-programming costs on cable bills; and delayed the sunset of the set-top integration ban that had forced cable operators to deploy energy- inefficient devices for what they saw as little upside.

Remaining in the bill was an amendment that would prevent broadcasters from coordinating retransmission- consent negotiations among non-commonly owned stations in a market, though the language had been softened from the tougher prohibition in the initial draft.

All of that was to the good for cable operators.

Broadcasters were mostly breathing a sigh of relief that the “local choice” proposal from the Senate Commerce Committee’s chair and ranking member, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.), had been jettisoned. That would have required broadcasters to deal directly with MVPD subscribers over whether their customers wanted to pay for TV channels in their programming packages, essentially doing away with the cable must-buy tier for broadcast TV.

Broadcasters were also suggesting that while those cable-targeted amendments were gone, the issues would continue to be raised and pushed by the various legislative champions.

Rockefeller, who will retire at the end of this session, said he sympathized with efforts to rein in cable bills — that was part of the impetus behind ‘Local Choice,’ as well as improving customer service and looking into sports programming. He promised a hearing on customer service, to ask the GAO to report back on the impact of sports fees and migration, and promised others who dropped their amendments that the issues would get attention elsewhere.

But that is, in some sense, the legislative-courtesy boilerplate when amendments are dropped in order not to hold up a bill — in this case, a must-pass measure.

It didn’t take long for some of those legislators to issue press releases pointing out they had introduced the amendments and promising to stay on the trail, but Congress is exiting in only days to campaign for reelection, leaving a lame duck session where the focus will be to get STAVRA out the door.

The satellite compulsory license must be reauthorized by the end of the year, Rockefeller pointed out, or 1.5 million mostly rural satellite customers, like those in his home state of West Virginia, could lose access to network TV-station signals.

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.