Dems Find Fault With Draft to Reauthorize Satellite Bill

Politics could derail proposal

A proposed bill to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, or Stela for short, may please broadcasters, cable and satellite companies, but politics on the communications and technology subcommittee could derail the current draft.

House Democrats who worked on an earlier draft with Republican Steve Scalise (R-N.J.) made it clear that they didn’t like and weren’t prepared to support the GOP leadership’s draft bill.

A lot of political maneuvering went on behind the scenes before communications and technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who has been predisposed to a simple reauthorization, released a draft bill that included a few goodies for cable at the end of last week. 

The bill would extend for five years the law that allows satellite companies to carry out-of-market stations when subscribers can’t receive all the local stations over the air, making it a must-have for DirecTV, which still relies on the law for about 1.5 million of its subscribers. For cable, the draft proposal would lift the cable box integration ban and prohibit TV stations in a joint sales agreement from jointly negotiating retransmission deals with cable and satellite.

“The current draft doesn’t embody bipartisan values,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a ranking member of the subcommittee who worked on Scalise's earlier draft, which would have addressed more comprehensive retransmission reform. “I think we can do better than this,” she said.

Eshoo, who is angling to be the House committee’s ranking Dem when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) retires at the end of the year, has been pushing her Video Choice Act aimed at stopping blackouts due to impasses in retransmission consent.

“In 2010, there were just 12 broadcast television blackouts nationwide, yet in 2013 there were 127. Similarly, retrans fees are expected to more than double from $3.3 billion last year to $7 billion by 2018. The loser in all of this is the consumer, who continues to see rising cable bills,” Eshoo said.

A bigger nonstarter for Dems may be the provision that prohibits TV stations in joint sales arrangements from jointly negotiating retransmission consent, yet stops the Federal Communications Commission from taking up separately a proposal to inhibit joint sales agreements.

Like Eshoo, Waxman said he found the two provisions “difficult to reconcile.”

But getting Walden to change his mind on the FCC provision may take some work. “[FCC] Chairman [Tom] Wheeler is putting the JSA cart before the media ownership horse,” he said. Wheeler accused the FCC of lawlessness for not including the JSA proposal to attribute JSAs as owned as part of its statutorily mandated media ownership review. “I’m really frustrated with the FCC,” he said.

Depending on how much Republican support the Dems can get for their approach, Walden may have a tough time ahead getting through his draft.

"There's a lot more work to tackle before we can say we got the policy right," Scalise said.

Ironically, Waxman said he would have favored a clean authorization of the law, which means if things get too rocky, that’s where it will end up.

Following the hearing, Walden seemed confident about the prospects for his draft. “We negotiated through some pretty troubled waters to get where we’re at [with the draft],” Walden told reporters. “We’ll talk after the hearing, but we think we found the sweet spot,” noting the support from broadcasters, cable and satellite.