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Senators Ask Wheeler to Stand Down on Exclusivity Rules

A growing number of Senators are pushing back on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposal to eliminate the syndicated exclusivity and network nonduplication rules.

Those rules prevent cable operators from, in most cases, importing duplicative syndicated and network programming from out-of-market stations.

In the past two days, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has received letters from Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) (Oct. 8) and another one today (Oct. 9) from a bipartisan quartet of heavy hitters: Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Judiciary Committee; John Thune (R-S.D.), chair of the Commerce Committee, and the ranking members of those respective committees, Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

All express concern about eliminating the rules before and without Congress weighing in on compulsory copyright reforms.

In her letter, Feinstein as much as told the FCC not to proceed this year with a vote on the proposal.

"[I] urge the FCC to carefully review the GAO report in mid-2016 before taking any final action," she said, referring to a review of the compulsory license regime mandated by Congress in the STELAR Act.

She also pointed to a GAO report on the exclusivity rules released earlier this year, which said that those rules "are part of a broader broadcasting industry legal and regulatory framework, including must carry, retransmission consent and compulsory copyrights."

In their letter, the bipartisan quartet was singing a similar tune of caution, pointing to the "interrelated nature" of copyright and the rules. They said that eliminating the rules without also changing copyright, something only Congress can do, will disrupt the local TV business and viewers.

"We feel it would be premature for the FCC to repeal the exclusivity rules white the current compulsory copyright license regime remains unchanged," told Wheeler.  The instead counseled the FCC to work with the committee on a more balanced approach.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which has been fighting elimination of the rules and seeking--and getting--Hill support for its position, was understandably pleased.

"NAB greatly appreciates the leadership and concerns raised by Chairmen Grassley and Thune, and Ranking Members Leahy and Nelson over the FCC’s proposal to eliminate program exclusivity rules," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, also adding Feinstein to the honor roll for her letter. "These rules sustain a broadcast business model built on localism and competition that is a great American success story. We further support the interest expressed by all four of these respected members of Congress in a holistic rather than piecemeal legislative approach to this issue."

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.