Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee said Tuesday that he was hopeful that industry negotiations would allow the subcommittee to address the issue of getting local into local service into all 212 markets and being able to deliver adjacent-market stations to so-called short markets that lack a full complement of network affiliates.
Although those were not included in a discussion draft of the bill, he said at a hearing Tuesday he hoped those negotiations could be reflected in the bill when it is ultimately marked up.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, ranking member of the subcommittee, said he thought that there would be sympathy on the committee for addressing the problems of both short and split markets, the latter being markets that cross state lines but where satellite companies cannot now import adjacent markets to give viewers an in-state station.
According to Boucher, EchoStar and DISH Network have a proposal on the table to share the costs of delivering local into local TV station signals to all 212 markets. Currently DirecTV is in about 150, and DISH just north of 180, but that leaves at least 30 markets without local TV station service on their satellite provider.
Boucher estimated that the cost would be about $30 million and asked NAB TV Board Chairman Paul Karpowicz of Meredith Broadcasting, one of the hearing witnesses, whether that was something the broadcasters would entertain. He testified that NAB had a working group of engineers and board members studying the proposal, but said it did not yet have enough information on the real costs of the proposal to "determine our level of participation."
While the discussion draft did not deal with the split market issue, much of the hearing did.
The issue was essentially divided between broadcasters, Karpowicz and Disney's top man in Washington, Preston Padden, who said the split-market issue could be addressed, and was already being addressed, by a change in the law, and satellite companies and distant-signal distributor National Programming Service, who said the law needed to be changed to allow adjacent-signal importation.
Both Padden and Karpowicz pointed out that stations and cable operators currently negotiate for the delivery of local news to so-called "orphan viewers in markets that cross state lines. What they oppose is allowing the entire station, including duplicative network and syndicated programming, to be imported. They argue that wreaks havoc with the programming exclusivity that their advertisers expect and are paying for. Without that exclusivity they argue, it is tougher to support local news and the kind of national content their viewers want.
They said that the major networks have also signaled that whatever national content is used in their local news is also cleared to be imported into adjacent markets.
Karpowicz argued that in so-called split markets, broadcasters are committed to providing local news and weather that is relevant to all their viewers. As an example he pointed to the Greenville, SC, market. Although 34% of the market's households are in North Carolina--another 4% are in Georgia--the closest North Carolina station is Charlotte, 95 miles away, while Greeneville is only 25 miles away.
Greenville shares weather, topography and cultural ties to those North Carolina viewers, he said, that can't be matched by a Charlotte station.
Bringing in duplicative signals into that Greenville market would undercut advertising and the station's ability to provide that news and weather. And he suggested there was no need to do that since stations were willing and able to negotiate carriage of their local news to other markets.
Padden added that two stations in Little Rock had sent letters to DirecTV and DISH network offering to negotiate for such carriage to the nearby Shreveport, La., market. He suggested that satellite operators might want to use some of the channels they were required to set aside for public service programming to run that imported local news and weather.
He also pointed out that ABC's station in Philadelphia, WPVI, imports local news to the Harrisburg market via a negotiated deal with a cable operator.
Rep. Mike Ross is pushing a bill that would allow for the import of distant signals to adjacent markets by both cable and satellite, which Padden said was billed as a way to get in-state news and other local programming. "That can happen today," he said, "and does happen."
Satellite operators on the panel countered that it was not viewer-friendly to black out 90% of a station's programming to deliver only the local news, and that it was difficult technically.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore), himself a former broadcaster, held up a remote control and suggested viewers already surfed for channels and could do the same when the imported local news was over. He also said that he had some experience "on the cool end of a soldering iron" getting TV station signals to a satellite and, with current server technology, didn't see it as a particularly difficult proposition.