In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) introduced this bill to extend rules on how cable and satellite TV companies can retransmit broadcast television signals to their customers. After the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology arrived at a bipartisan agreement on this bill, Rep. Doyle said:
“I’m happy to announce that we have reached a bipartisan deal on this legislation… This is a complex issue that directly affects millions of Americans. I’m very pleased that we were able to negotiate a bipartisan compromise on legislation to permanently authorize the laws governing good faith negotiations between broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors over the carriage of broadcast television programming. The deal also enables the Judiciary Committee to extend the distant signal license, which allows satellite tv providers to carry broadcast television content to nearly a million consumers. I understand that the House Judiciary Committee is working toward an agreement on this legislation. We were also able to come to agreement on important provisions related to billing transparency and the ability of small cable providers to negotiate together with large broadcast ownership groups. This deal is a big win for consumers. It’s my hope that we can move this important legislation through the committee, the House, and the Senate and get it signed into law before the current authorization expires at the end of the year.”
Public Knowledge supports this bill. Its Senior Policy Council, Jenna Leventoff, says:
“We are pleased Congressman Doyle has introduced legislation to reauthorize provisions that, when adequately enforced, ensure video providers and broadcasters negotiate in good faith to reduce blackouts and keep prices down for consumers… While we have advocated for a permanent reauthorization of both the distant signal and good-faith retransmission consent provisions, Congressman Doyle’s five-year reauthorization of the good-faith retransmission consent negotiation requirement will protect consumers from being pawns in negotiations between large companies, giving Congress time to consider important changes to the videoplace market rules. Congressman Doyle’s proposal will also increase transparency in advertising and billing for video, internet, and phone service. This provision, also championed in the Senate by Sen. Markey, will ensure that consumers aren’t breaking the bank for vital communications services.”
Consumer Reports expressed support for the compromise agreement in a November 20, 2019 letter:
“We understand a bipartisan compromise has been agreed to that requires an MVPD (multichannel video program distributor) to disclose the total price, including all itemized charges, fees, and estimated taxes, before a consumer agrees to sign up for a video package, whether offered individually or as part of a bundled service. CR further understands that a consumer will be afforded a 24-hour period to cancel service without penalty after receiving a formal notice of the disclosure given at the point of sale. Finally, language has been added that will prohibit a company from charging consumers for equipment they do not use. Consensus is difficult to achieve on many issues before Congress, and injecting transparency into the billing practices of telecommunications providers is, unfortunately, no different. Nonetheless, consumers will be better off if the agreed upon legislation is enacted into law as part of H.R. 5035. Therefore, Consumer Reports endorses the compromise that was struck, and we applaud the hard work of the Congressional staff who worked long hours to achieve this win for consumers.”
Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on October 23, 2019, AT&T’s Senior Vice President of Content and Programming, Robert Thun, argued that STELAR must be reauthorized to ensure consumers continue receiving network television programming:
“[W]ithout STELAR’s distant-signal-license, 870,000 satellite subscribers, your constituents, would lose access to the network television programming they have relied on for years. In all cases, failure to renew STELAR would remove channels from people who legally receive them today -- many of whom have done so for years -- and who would not understand why those channels were taken away. While the number of customers receiving service through the distant signal license has declined over time, that does not mean that those 870,000 subscribers that continue to receive high-quality satellite network programming because of the license should now be left behind. For the same reasons it has for decades, Congress should continue to protect those subscribers’ access to network programming. These include hundreds of thousands… mainly in rural areas, that cannot obtain a free over-the-air signal from a local network broadcaster. That point bears repeating: we are able to offer distant signals to hundreds of thousands of your constituents because the broadcasters have failed to provide these constituents with their local signal over- the-air. Nothing prevents local broadcasters from investing in their local communities, extending the reach of their signals, and providing these customers free, over-the-air-signals. Indeed, the government provided local broadcasters access to free spectrum with the hope that they would do just that. Instead of doing so, local broadcasters choose to blame Congress, and take the easier (and certainly cheaper) path of opposing renewal of STELAR, thereby putting satellite subscribers at risk. Local broadcasters cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, fail to provide consumers access to free, over-the-air local network programming, while at the same time asking Congress to deny these same consumers access to network programming via the distant-signal-license. Congress rightly avoided this consumer ‘double whammy’ when it adopted the satellite and cable distant signal license decades ago and its logic in doing so remains just as sound today.”
Although his staff worked on the compromise agreement that helped this bill pass through committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republican Leader Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) isn’t sure this legislation is necessary. In remarks at this bill’s committee markup, he said, “As most of you know, I haven’t yet been convinced that we need to reauthorize STELAR. However, our staffs have been working diligently on this issue and we remain hopeful we can reach a good outcome.”
The New York State Broadcasters Association (NYSBA) opposes STELAR’s reauthorization, as it believes the law is unnecessary:
“STELAR was enacted 30 years ago. It gave the nascent satellite industry an exemption from the copyright law and allowed it to import distant network signals to homes that could not receive local affiliates over the air with an antenna… We believe the law should expire. STELAR has become nothing more than a vehicle for adding new regulations on to local television broadcasters.”
The NYSBA took particular issue with a provision allowing smaller cable companies to join together to collectively negotiate with television stations. It argued that this collective negotiation, which would apply to cable operators with up to a million subscribers nationally, could raise antitrust issues.
Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on STELAR reauthorization on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Graham Media CEO and president Emily Barr argued that STELAR harms local TV viewers and serves only to benefit large telecommunications providers that don’t need its support:
“Local broadcasters continue to believe that the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR) should be allowed to expire at the end of 2019 – the date that Congress intentionally chose for this temporary law to sunset. Not only have its provisions become unnecessary and ineffective, but today STELAR affirmatively harms viewers who are being denied access to their local television stations as the result of its continued reauthorization… When enacted 30 years ago, STELAR’s distant signal license allowed nascent satellite television companies to better compete with big cable monopolies when the technology did not otherwise exist for those providers to carry local broadcast stations. On a temporary basis, Congress allowed the satellite companies to serve their subscribers with a broadcast station operating outside of the local community at a discounted rate in order to ensure that those households could receive their favorite network programming. That law was wildly successful, yet the market and media landscape have fundamentally changed over the past three decades. Today, there is no technological impediment to delivering local station signals to all markets, and those satellite companies are now media behemoths who do not need a subsidy: AT&T-DIRECTV is a $280 billion company, and DISH is a $17 billion company. DISH is providing this local service in all 210 local markets today and has been for nearly a decade, yet AT&T- DIRECTV continues to offer only out-of-town signals to viewers in 12 markets simply because it is more profitable for the company… Viewers will benefit from eliminating this outdated law, ensuring they receive the local content most relevant to them. In rare instances where a local broadcast channel is not available, private business arrangements between satellite TV providers and broadcasters can resolve these issues.”
This legislation passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee by voice vote.
Of Note: Federal law sets many rules for television broadcast signals, such as licensing and broadcaster ownership rules. It also sets the rules under which cable and satellite TV companies can retransmit broadcast television signals to their customers. This is an important service for households that don’t receive one or more network-affiliated television signals because of restrictive geography or their remote location. Some of these laws were last reauthorized in 2014 in the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization Act (STELAR Act), which is set to expire on December 31, 2019.
STELAR is the compulsory satellite license law that allows subscription cable services, such as DirecTV and Dish, to import distant network signals into markets that don't have a local version. It also requires good faith retransmission consent negotiations between broadcasters and MVPDs, satellite and cable and telco. It expires at the end of the year unless renewed.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / seraficus)