Senators Press AT&T/DirecTV for Small-Market, Remote Area TV Signals

A quartet of senators has asked AT&T to make the investment to get DirecTV to the dozen remaining smaller markets where DirecTV continues to import TV station signals from New York and L.A. network affiliates rather than the relevant hometown affiliate.

The senators are also concerned about importing  those distant network signals into remote markets without that affiliate, rather than importing nearby affiliate signals with more locally relevant content.

The missing 12 markets are Alpena, Mich.; Bowling Green, Ky.; Caspar-Riverton, Wyo.; Cheyenne, Wyoming/Scottsbluff, Neb.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Helena, Mont.; North Platte, Neb.; Ottumwa, Iowa; Preque Isle, Me.; San Angelo, Tex.;Victoria, Tex.; and Glendive, Mont.

Satellite operators use spot beams to deliver local-into-local, so it is not just the case of flipping a switch, which is why the FCC grants satellite operators a waiver of market modification requests in cases of technical infeasibility. But broadcasters have pointed out that DISH has been able to deliver so-called local-into-local in all 210 markets.

Related: Congress Asks FCC to Review Market Mod Issues

Satellite operators have to carry all TV stations in markets where they carry any (so-called "carry one, carry all"), but have no general must-carry mandate as do cable operators.

The letter, from Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) , said that "despite technical advances that allow satellite companies to serve local channels into local markets in any location, the customers of these 12 media markets still receive limited or no access to locally broadcasted [CQ] network stations through their subscriptions."

As to the other issue, they said they had heard from folks in the remote areas of their states that AT&T/DirecTV often delivered distant signals form New York and Los Angeles instead of nearby media markets "that may carry important and relevant local news and alerts." They conceded the current law allows that but didn't see why AT&T didn't try to deliver in-region news.

"[We] urge AT&T/DirecTV to make the necessary investments to serve these remaining 12 media markets with local channels and improve local service options for customers in remote areas," they said.

The issue was last squarely on the front burner five years ago, when Congress was renewing that current law, the STELARA legislation that renews the compulsory license that allows satellite providers to import those distant TV station signals without negotiating individually for them. The law must be renewed, or not, by the end of this year. Broadcasters say not, and to allow them to negotiate individually for access to those distant signals.

But it also cropped up in 2015 when AT&T was seeking government approval to buy DirecTV, the Big Four network affiliate associations joined with the National Association of Broadcasters to ask the FCC to require DirecTV to carry TV stations in all 210 TV markets if it wanted to be able to merge with AT&T, but that was not made part of the deal.

"Over twelve years ago, DirecTV told the FCC (as part of a then pending application) that it would deliver local-into-local television service to all 210 DMAs within three years and absolutely no later than 2008," they pointed out at the time. "This has not yet happened, and a condition imposed by the FCC in this proceeding will fix that broken promise."

The senators are trying to light a new fire under that effort.

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.