STELAR to Sunset Dec. 31

The Senate has put the STELAR retransmission consent reform vehicle on blocks, apparently for good.

As expected the Senate has passed compromise bills that make the retrans good faith negotiation mandate for broadcasters and MVPDs permanent and sunsets the every-five-year renewal of the satellite distant signal compulsory license, which was most recently renewed in 2014 as STELAR, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act.

Some satellite customers could lose access to TV station signals when the current law sunsets Dec. 31, but it is unclear how many.

Related: Deal Struck on STELAR Successor Bills

The compromise bills both originated in the House, the Television Viewer Protection Act (TVPA), which makes good faith permanent, and the Satellite Television Community Protection and Promotion Act of 2019, which adjusts/sunsets the license, as well as requiring truth-in-billing fee disclosures by MVPDs--which cable ops weren't calling for--and prohibiting MVPDs from charging consumers for some equipment.

The House passed the bills earlier this week as part of a package of must-pass spending bills to keep the government open past Dec. 20. The Senate then followed suit, and it only takes a Trump signature to mark the end of a STELAR renewal cycle that stretches back two decades and was the periodic vehicle for attempts to reform a retrans consent framework broadcasters have said was working fine.

The license allowed satellite operators to import distant network TV station signals to viewers who lacked them, including truckers, RV users and tailgaters on the go, short markets lacking one or more affiliate, and viewers whose market had an affiliate but who could not get a viewable signal. It got those signals at a blanket license rate, and did not have to negotiate with TV stations for them.

Related: CRS Report Connects Dots Between Blackouts and STELAR Sunset.

The legislation extends the compulsory license for truckers, RV users and tailgaters and those in short markets, until May 31 and makes it so long as the satellite distributor delivers local stations into all 210 markets. Dish currently does so, but DirecTV still has a dozen markets where it does not and will need to do so by May 31 or lose the compulsory license--and its government-set rate--and have to negotiate individually.

Broadcasters have pointed to that rate--some 18 cents per sub--as far too low. Currently some TV station signals are getting $2 per sub in market negotiations, though negotiations MVPDs say are skewed toward broadcasters. But broadcasters also wanted DirecTV to deliver local-into-local in those dozen markets, which it will have to do or pay that higher rate if it wants to retain the signals, so the bills on balance are a victory for the National Association of Broadcasters.

It is not clear how many of the viewers who have an affiliate, just not a viewable one, will lose their signals Jan. 1, but an AT&T exec blogged Thursday (Dec. 19) that the law's sunset could leave hundreds of thousands of satellite subs with dark screens where TV signals used to be, while broadcasters argue it is not that many and doesn't have to be any if DirecTV will carry local stations in those final 12 markets.

Satellite operators put the current distant signal customer figure at about 870,000, while broadcasters put it closer to 500,000. But it is not clear how many are left over after the short markets and truckers and RVers and tailgaters are removed from those numbers, which would leave the ones losing signals when the STELAR law sunsets at the end of the year. 

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.