House Subcommittee Starts to Review Communications Laws

Hearing is first of many exploring decades-old legislation

A House subcommittee today took its first, small step toward opening the legal can of worms that comprise the nation’s communications laws, holding a hearing on a 25-year law that governs which broadcast stations satellite TV companies can distribute.

Called the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, the law allows satellite TV companies like Dish and DirecTV to retransmit to local market subscribers a network TV signal from outside the subscribers' market.

Over the years, the need for the law has changed and so has its impact. Dish now carries local stations for all 210 Nielsen markets. DirecTV carries local stations in about 196 markets. In total, only an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million homes with satellite TV receive distant signals.

Whether Congress should reauthorize STELA, which expires at the end of 2014, was the thrust of Wednesday’s hearing before the subcommittee on communications and technology. That said, committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) also left the door open to revising STELA to address other video distribution issues.

“We’re just starting this process. We recognize the market evolves and the market in video keeps changing. We want to make sure policy keeps pace with those changes,” Walden said after the hearing.

During a session that mostly focused on history, neither lawmakers nor representatives from broadcast and satellite TV companies seemed opposed to passing a clean reauthorization of STELA, despite the recognition that the law was getting moldy.

“It may be a clean reauthorization, it may be no reauthorization, it may be expanded,” Walden said simply.

One thing is sure: it’s going to be a long 22 months.