U.S. House of Representatives Takes Major STEPS on STELAR – Work Remains in the Senate

The House of Representatives took two major steps towards blocking the renewal of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Renewal (STELAR).  As we have noted previously, STELAR was enacted 30 years ago to allow satellite companies to import distant network signals into areas that could not receive these signals over the air.  It has long outlived its usefulness.

There are significant benefits to not renewing STELAR. Every five years we have to fight off a plethora of new retransmission consent regulations.  It has become a vehicle for imposing unnecessary regulations on broadcasters.

Action in the House of Representatives

STELAR was divided into two bills.  One bill, the Television Viewer Protection Act (H.R. 5035), was approved by the House Commerce Committee. The other bill, the Satellite Television Community Protection and Promotion Act (H.5140), was passed by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D NY).  The passage of both bills marks a major step preventing the renewal of STELAR. The next step is a vote on the floor of The House.

H.R. 5035:  The House Commerce Committee reached a compromise on H.R. 5035.  The bill makes permanent the good faith negotiation requirement for retransmission consent, now embodied in STELAR.  By making the “good faith” requirement permanent, we eliminate the issue that is driving more restrictive rules. Second, the bill will require greater transparency in cable bills.  Third, the bill will allow small cable systems, i.e., those with a national subscriber base of up to 500,000, to join groups and bargain collectively with broadcasters over retransmission consent.

We are concerned about the “collective bargaining” provisions. Ultimately the debate was about numbers.  The cable industry wanted it to apply to systems with up to 1 million subscribers nation-wide.  NAB was pushing a 25,000 subscriber limit.  House Democrat and Republicans settled on a 500,000 subscriber limit.

H.R. 5140:  STELAR is based on copyright law, which falls under the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee.  The bill eliminates the 5 year STELAR renewal as it applied to homes.  It made permanent the STELAR copyright right exception for RVs and trucks.  (STELAR has always allowed satellite companies to import distant signals to RV’s and trucks.)  However, ATT/Direct TV is given 180 days to provide local into local service to all markets in the U.S. (Dish already does this).  If ATT/DirectTV fails to provide local into local service to all markets in the country, then it will lose the ability to serve RV’s and trucks.

Bottom line – While we have some concerns about the “collective negation” provisions, this is a good result for television stations.

NYSBA worked with members of the NY delegation on both committees.  Our thanks to Chairman Jerry Nadler and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, both of whom sit on the Judiciary Committee. We also want to thank Congressman Paul Tonko, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and Congressman Eliot Engel who serve on the House Commerce Committee.

Action in the Senate

There are also two bills moving in the Senate.  A few weeks ago, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R MS) attempted to pass the Satellite Television Access Reauthorization (STAR) Act (S. 2789).  The bill would extend STELAR for another five years with no additional provisions.  That bill was met with considerable opposition from Senators who wanted to add various amendments.  As a result Chairman Wicker pulled the bill from the schedule.

Importantly Senator Maria Cantwell (D WA) wanted to amend the bill to make the “good faith” negotiations requirement permanent.  In return, STELAR would not be extended.  This approach is similar to the approach that was adopted by the House of Representatives.

Also, there is a jurisdictional split in the Senate.  Because STELAR is a copyright issue, House Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R SC) believes the decision is up to his Committee.   Senator Graham is willing to let STELAR expire at the end of the year.  He sent a letter to all the major networks asking them to allow satellite companies to continue to provide their content at below market rates for one year.

The fundamental issue is whether the Senate will follow the approach taken by the House of Representatives.  On this point Senate Commerce Committee Chairman spoke on the floor of the Senate on November 19th, asking that STELAR be renewed.  When Congress gets back from the Thanksgiving break, there will only be 10 legislative days left in this session.  It is possible that STELAR may not be renewed.  With impeachment looming, it could spill over into next year.  We will follow this closely.


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