A combination of pay TV industry executives and a public interest group told lawmakers on June 4 that they should reauthorize a law related to the retransmission of broadcast television signals. But they also had various ideas for reforms.
Three out of four witnesses who testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on June 4 declared their support for the renewal of STELAR, or the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization. The law, set to expire at the end of 2019, includes provisions governing how satellite video providers may retransmit broadcast TV signals from station owners and how pay TV operators and broadcasters must negotiate retransmission consent contracts in good faith.
Patricia Jo Boyers, president of BOYCOM Vision, a small cable operator based in Missouri, said she supports reauthorization because the good faith provisions benefit smaller operators.
"STELAR is very important for us with the good faith rules that are on the board," said Boyers, who is also vice chair of America's Communications Association — or ACA Connects — a group representing small to midsize communications operators. "That is what makes a broadcaster like Raycom [Media Inc.] or Sinclair [Broadcast Group Inc.] come to the table with little old me."
Robert Thun, who is responsible for securing content rights from major networks and local broadcast station groups for AT&T Inc., said the telco giant also supports renewal of the law because it includes a provision that permits satellite carriers to import distant signals in markets where there is no local station. Thun described this provision — which also exempts satellite operators from retransmission consent requirements for the carriage of distant signals — as benefiting consumers.
Additionally, he encouraged Congress not only to reauthorize the provision but to make it permanent. AT&T owns the satellite video operator DIRECTV.
Outside of the pay TV industry, John Bergmayer, senior counsel at public interest group Public Knowledge, urged permanent reauthorization of the law because of "the importance of STELAR to maintaining competition and protecting viewers."
But committee members appeared divided on the issue of reauthorization, with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., expressing particular concern about the distant signal provision.
"The bottom line is that Congress must consider whether a distant network signal license extension is a bridge — or a blockade — to delivering local coverage," Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in prepared testimony. "I am committed to ensuring that all rural communities both in Oregon, and across the United States, continue to receive robust, effective, and affordable local broadcast coverage."
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., meanwhile, seemed inclined to support reauthorization.
"While I agree that this law isn't a perfect solution, allowing this legislation to sunset would create a crisis that could result in nearly a million consumers losing access to important broadcast content," said Doyle, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. As of October 2018, satellite providers reported that 870,000 subscribers receive at least one distant broadcast signal.
"Allowing a lapse of the good faith standard in retransmission consent negotiations only invites bad behavior and consumer harm," Doyle added.
Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, argued that Congress should let the law expire, largely because of the distant-signal provision's impact on access to local content.
"STELAR is not only unnecessary today due to considerable advances in the media marketplace, but any reauthorization will further harm the satellite viewers currently being denied access to their local television stations," said Smith in prepared testimony. He also said the expiring good faith requirements have provided "no quantifiable benefit to either broadcasters or pay TV providers," given that both sides already have an economic incentive to reach a deal and serve consumers.
While Boyers supports reauthorization, she said she would like to see the retrans regime reformed. While she noted all ideas are on the table, she specifically pointed to previous ideas from Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., to amend retransmission consent rules.
Eshoo and Scalise said June 3 that they intend to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would eliminate "regulations that cause broadcast TV blackouts." The two lawmakers have yet to release specific details about bill's provisions.