House Subcommittee Approves Amended STELA Reauthorization Draft Legislation

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By Bryce Baschuk  

March 25 --The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology approved a five-year draft bill to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA).

The full House Commerce Committee would be next to consider reauthorizing the law that permits satellite providers to retransmit broadcast television signals before the legislation expires on Dec. 31. The House and Senate Commerce committees share jurisdiction over STELA with the House and Senate Judiciary committees.

The subcommittee approved a bipartisan amendment to the discussion draft aimed at alleviating Democratic concerns about the proposed legislation. Republicans agreed to add a provision to preserve the Federal Communications Commission's ability to create a new set-top box technology when needed. They also agreed to shelve for further discussion language that would have restricted the FCC's forthcoming media ownership rulemaking for broadcast stations with joint sales agreements (JSAs).

“We still have some work to do, but we are encouraged by the compromises we have reached so far,” said House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

Bipartisan Amendment Approved

Walden and House Communications Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment that modified language aimed at retiring the rules that govern video set-top box controls. Subcommittee members agreed to eliminate the FCC's integration ban but granted the commission rulemaking authority to impose new regulations regarding set-top box controls.

Section 629 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act ensures that consumers have adequate access to navigation devices in order to view multichannel video programming. In 2003, the FCC adopted industry-developed standards for a CableCARD security device that would permit video navigation devices to allow televisions to display encrypted multichannel video programming content. The commission subsequently ordered an integration ban that prohibited multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) from using built-in security features in their set-top boxes in lieu of permitting CableCARD accessibility.

The amendment is a compromise that “keeps the door open to the successor to the CableCARD,” Eshoo said. “To deconstruct what we have now and not put something in place for a successor technology, I don't think is the right way to go,” she said. Eshoo previously had said that she opposed any elimination of the integration ban because it has helped ensure competition in the set-top box marketplace.

House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he supported the “trust but verify” approach taken by the Eshoo-Walden amendment. The provision preserves “the FCC's authority to ensure there is competition in this marketplace,” he said.

FCC Provision Bracketed

Republicans on the subcommittee said they would bracket section four of the bill for later discussion when the full committee takes up the legislation. That provision seeks to prevent the FCC's forthcoming order to revise its media ownership restrictions regarding broadcast stations with JSAs.

The STELA reauthorization bill would have prohibited the FCC from modifying its media ownership rules regarding JSAs until the agency completes its 2010 quadrennial review of media ownership rules. The FCC prohibits broadcast companies from owning two or more full power television stations in the same market. If the order is approved, an owner of one broadcast station in a market that sells 15 percent or more of the advertising time for a competing station in the same market will be considered to have an ownership interest in that station.

“I'm committed to working with my Republican colleagues to ensure the FCC completes its long overdue 2010 quadrennial review,” Eshoo said. “They need to get it done. I think this [FCC] chairman is committed to do that and unfortunately the former chairman didn't.” The FCC did not complete its 2006 review until 2007, and the agency hasn't completed a quadrennial review of media ownership rules since then.

Bracketing the section is a “show of good faith to our Democratic colleagues that we intend to work to see if we can reach agreement on that section,” Walden said. “I stand behind the language instructing the FCC to do its job and complete the quadrennial review of the media ownership rules before tinkering with JSAs--particularly because I believe that these JSAs provide benefits to rural television providers.”

Remaining Provisions Untouched

The draft bill would permit MVPDs to negotiate broadcast carriage agreements jointly or separately with broadcast stations that have JSAs. Broadcasters that combine advertising and resources between TV stations under such agreements often collaborate in cable carriage negotiations in order to achieve higher fees. The bill would also eliminate current rules that prohibit MVPDs from eliminating broadcast TV content from their lineups during sweeps weeks rating measurements.

The legislation would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study that determines how eliminating certain carriage provisions for MVPDs would affect consumer prices and access to programming. The bill requires another GAO report that examines the difference between the results of such a study and a previous study conducted during the 2010 reauthorization of STELA.

The bill also would require satellite video providers like DIRECTV and DISH Network Corp. to submit annual reports detailing which local markets it retransmits broadcast TV signals from.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com


For more information, watch the markup here: http://energycommerce.house.gov/markup/markup-notice-subcommittee-communications-and-technology.