By a vote of 34 to 0, the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday voted to approve SHVURA, the Satellite Home Viewer Update and Reauthorization Act, the latest version of legislation reauthorizing the copyright license that allows satellite broadcasters to retransmit distant TV station signals.
The bill allows DISH network to get back into the distant signal business, at least when it comes to filling so-called short markets--one without all four major broadcast network affiliates. But DISH had to promise to deliver local TV station signals in all 210 markets.
That means adding signals in 28 markets, according to Rep. Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, who had pushed DISH and broadcasters to come up with a deal on delivering local-into-local service in all the Nielsen markets.
The bill also fixes the so-called phantom signal issue that has required cable operators to pay for signals they weren't delivering to customers, redefines those eligible for distant network signals so that signals that bleed over from adjacent markets don't disqualify that importation, allows for the in-market distribution of noncommercial TV stations if part of a state network, and updates the satellite and cable licenses to reflect the switch to digital.
But while there were no "no" votes on the bill, there was criticism, led by ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and Howard Berman of (D-Cal.).
Smith took issue with allowing DISH into the distant-signal business. The bill would waive a court injunction against the satellite company's delivering those distant signals so long as it got local service into all those 210 markets.
Smith said that he had "serious reservations about restoring DISH's ability to deliver distant signals, saying legislatively overturning a court order is something he didn't understand. He said the bill effectively relieves a lawbreaker of the consequences of unlawful conduct. He said that he would like to see more discussion of that part of the bill before it goes to the floor, but that his opposition to the DISH provision was not sufficient for him to oppose the overall bill. "Despite that provision," he said, the rest of bill is important enough to Americans to justify our support.
Boucher saw it quite differently, saying DISH's was a generous offer and pointing out that DISH was only getting back into the distant-signal business in short markets.
Berman said that while he would support the bill, he criticized what he said had become the habitual renewal and expansion of a copyright license that was no longer necessary.
Echoing arguments by some broadcasters, Berman said that the license was an artifact of a time when cable and satellite were nascent industries and that they no longer needed a government subsidy.
He said this should be the last time the bill was reauthorized.
He was joined by Republican Rep. Darrel Issa, also of California, who introduced and withdrew an amendment that would have renewed the license for only two years. He said he was sending a warning to distributors to prepare to have to negotiate in the marketplace for content.
Echoing Berman, he said that Comcast, Time Warner, and DISH were big enough to buy and sell in the open market. He said he had been told the amendment would prevent the bill from passing this year (the license will sunset if it doesn't), and "break up" certain desirable deals.
In response to a call from Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) for some language in the bill protecting program access, Conyers said he would be glad to work with her on it.
While the bill passed unanimously, it must still make it to the floor, and then to conference with a Senate version that does not currently include the local-into-local deal.
"The strong and important bill that was unanimously voted out of the House Judiciary Committee today, makes many necessary changes to the copyright law, and is a key step toward providing an incentive for DISH Network to offer local channels to every television market in the country," said the company in a statement following the bill's approval by the committee. "We stand ready to work with the Judiciary Committee and the Congress to help this bill move forward."
The American Cable Association is generally pleased with the bill's direction, but says there is still work to be done to insure its members, medium-sized and smaller cable operators, are not disadvantaged.
"The bill is a good start, said ACA President Matt Polka. "We appreciate that the committee has recognized that smaller, independent and rural-based cable operators face different challenges and dynamics than their larger brethren in the industry. While that acknowledgment has been made, we believe the bill needs some further refinement to help small businesses who will be disproportionately burdened by many of the new provisions that were reached through negotiations between the associations of the larger entities."