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July 22 --The House passed legislation to renew the nation's satellite television laws for another five years, while the Senate continued to mull its legislative options.
House lawmakers passed by a voice vote July 22 the STELA Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4572), which would ensure that 1.5 million mostly rural Americans could continue to view distant broadcast signals via satellite that they otherwise wouldn't be able to receive.
The bill contains several extraneous provisions that, if adopted by the Senate, would benefit pay-TV operators like Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., DISH Network Corp. and DirecTV, among others.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, one of four congressional committees that share jurisdiction over the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), is expected to introduce and mark up its bill in September.
Congress has until Dec. 31 to reauthorize STELA before the following key provisions expire:
• Section 325(b)(2)(C) of the Communications Act, which permits satellite providers to retransmit broadcast signals from distant network stations without first obtaining retransmission consent;
• Section 325(b)(3)(C)(ii) of the Communications Act, which prohibits TV broadcast stations that provide retransmission consent to enter into exclusive carriage contracts or fail to negotiate with pay TV companies in “good faith”; and
• Section 119 of the Copyright Act, which permits satellite providers to retransmit distant broadcast signals under the terms of a specific copyright licensing structure.
Failure to reauthorize the expiring provisions could jeopardize the ability of satellite providers to transmit distant broadcast signals to their subscribers, particularly in rural areas that lack access to local broadcast programming.
The sponsor of H.R. 4572, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), urged Senate lawmakers to “act quickly and pass this bill into law this year,” during a floor speech prior to the vote.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) endorsed the bill in a separate floor speech and said more comprehensive legislation is needed to address the rising prices that consumers pay to watch television content.
“These narrow changes only begin to scratch the surface of the broken video marketplace,” Welch said. “It is time for the consumer concerns to be heard and responded to.”
In addition to renewing STELA's expiring provisions, H.R. 4572 seeks to add several new provisions that tweak the current broadcast carriage regime.
One such provision would prevent coordinated retransmission consent negotiations between broadcasters in the same market.
The bill's language would strengthen a recent Federal Communications Commission rule change that said joint negotiation by competing stations among the top four stations in a market as measured by audience share constitutes a violation of the statutory duty to negotiate in good faith .
The legislation would also eliminate rules that prevent pay TV distributors from blacking out broadcast content from their lineups during Nielsen “sweeps weeks” rating measurements.
H.R. 4572 would provide broadcast stations with more time to unwind joint sales agreements (JSAs), which generally combine advertising and resources between TV stations that compete in the same market.
Earlier this year, the FCC adopted a rule change (MB Docket No. 04-256) to clarify that certain JSAs are now attributable under the commission's current media ownership restrictions and gave stations two years to unwind any agreements found to violate FCC rules. The FCC prohibits broadcast companies from owning two or more full-power television stations in the same local market.
H.R. 4572 would permit stations to file for a waiver to the FCC's recent JSA rule changes within 90 days of the bill's passage. If the FCC denied any such waiver, broadcast stations would be permitted to maintain their JSA relationships until Dec. 31, 2016, or possibly later under the revised language of the bill.
Pay TV companies had complained that broadcasters were using JSAs to leverage better rates during retransmission consent negotiations.
H.R. 4572 includes language that would retire rules that govern video set-top box controls.
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 MVPDs from using built-in security features in their set-top boxes in lieu of permitting CableCARD accessibility.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association said H.R. 4572 “removes an unnecessary technology mandate that imposes higher costs and energy use on cable customers who lease set-top boxes while offering no benefits,” according to a news release following the vote.
H.R. 4572 would require the FCC to submit a report that evaluates the level of access consumers have to broadcast TV content outside of their local markets.
The bill would require a Government Accountability Office study to determine the impact of the FCC's recent broadcast carriage rule changes.
The bill also would require satellite video providers to submit annual reports detailing from which local markets it retransmits broadcast TV signals.
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee said July 16 that they plan to “consider and report” a STELA reauthorization bill in September . The committee is the last of four congressional panels with jurisdiction over STELA to introduce and approve a reauthorization bill.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), may consider broader changes to the law and previously said STELA “will not be a clean process this year”.
Rockefeller may seek to include elements of his Consumer Choice in Online Video Act (S. 1680) into the committee's bill. The bill would provide online video distributors like Aereo Inc. and Netflix Inc. with reasonable access to broadcast and cable video content, among other provisions .
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