Bipartisan Judiciary leadership pondering whether to sunset license

The House Judiciary Committee is drilling down on the renewal--or not--of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR), seeking info from Dish and DirecTV to help make that call.

That came in letters to both companies from Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the chair and ranking member of the committee, respectively.

STELAR provides the compulsory license that allows DBS distributors to deliver distant TV station signals into markets lacking them, but without having to negotiate with individual stations for that carriage.

The bill has a five-year sunset and must be renewed (or extended) by the end of this year or the license goes away.

In their letters, the legislators said they needed to evaluate "whether the Sec. 119 license should be allowed to sunset." Given that they could as easily have said it was to determine whether it should be renewed, broadcasters were hoping to read something into that rhetorical tea leaf.

Related: Senators Press AT&T/DirecTV for Small Market Signals

Nadler and Collins gave the companies until April 19 to answer some questions, including the number of subs that receive one or more distant signals and under what license subpart--the license covers markets where they may lack a network affiliate, or ones where they have not chosen to deliver any local stations. Unlike cable, satellite's have a carry-one, carry all requirement, so they don't have to carry any local TV station (cable's must-carry requirement), but if they carry one they must carry all. The difference was because it is more technically challenging for satellite operators to deliver local stations--they have to tune "spot beams"--than for cable operators.

While Dish carries TV stations in all 210 TV markets--so its license is for filling in short markets or orphan counties*--DirecTV still has 12 small markets where it has chosen to carry none.

Related: SBCA Pushes Permanent STELAR Renewal

Broadcasters are hoping to kick back and enjoy that STELAR sunset, but at the moment they are working hard to convince Congress that the law has outlived its usefulness. The bill also includes some limits and directives on broadcast retrans negotiations broadcasters would just as soon do without as well.

"There is no policy justification or technological reason for STELAR to be reauthorized. The time has come to stop subsidizing billion-dollar satellite TV companies and to instead provide viewers with the local news, weather and emergency information they want and need. Congress should let STELAR expire," NAB said last October in a policy paper it circulated on the Hill.

The provisions set to expire--and which NAB argues should expire--are the "discounted" compulsory license--broadcasters say the price is not fair market value--the retrans "exemption" for imported out-of-market signals, and the retrans good faith negotiation requirement.

"It is time to allow STELAR to expire," said NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton. "Congress never intended for this law to live in perpetuity and even DirecTV admits it has stopped launching satellites in favor of a new internet-delivered TV service."

Cable operators are pushing not only for renewal, but for additional retrans-related provisions like no blackouts and third-party arbitration for disputes.

“If Congress fails to re-authorize STELAR, hundreds of thousands of consumers, mostly in rural areas, would lose their broadcast channels from satellite," the cable and satellite-backed American Television Alliance has said. "Congress should not only re-authorize STELAR so rural America can continue receiving all their broadcast channels, but also modernize the retransmission consent rules, which currently favor broadcasters at the expense of consumers and competition.”

*In the 2014 STELAR satellite license reauthorization, the FCC extended its potential fix for cable orphan counties--ones placed in Nielsen markets in another state--to satellite carriage as well. Broadcasters or satellite operators or county officials can all petition for the modification. But given the technical challenges, DBS operators have a "where technically feasible" out if they can show it is too tough to deliver the signals. 

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