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“Local Choice” for STELA bill another attempt to gut retrans consent

U.S. Senator John Thune, R-South Dakota, wants to make it harder for Americans to watch their favorite TV programming by forcing them to pay for local broadcast stations separately from – and in addition to – their Pay-TV service if they can’t or don’t want to set up an over-the-air antenna.

Thune, the leading Republican on the Democrat-led Senate Commerce Committee, joined committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, in floating a framework of Thune’s “Local Choice” proposal Aug. 7, with the intention of adding it to an unrelated measure needed to continue the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA).

Thune and Rockefeller say their proposed a la carte system, which would apply only to broadcast stations that do not elect must-carry, would result in fewer programming disruptions to Pay-TV subscribers – despite the fact that most programming blackouts occur with cable channels.

Under the proposed framework, a station electing retransmission consent would set a price and a Pay-TV company would market the station to subscribers, collect the fee and pass it along to the station.  The existing basic-tier and buy-through restrictions would not apply.

Pay-TV critics are expected to use the proposal to argue instead for a completely a la carte system for all channels and already note that cable prices – which are completely unregulated – are not likely to fall even absent the most-watched programming from local broadcasters and national networks.  In some cases, bills could increase because not all Pay-TV companies have the ability to distribute individual channels of programming.

The STELA legislation is slated for action in the Commerce Committee in mid-September and the “Local Choice” measure could be attached to the bill then.  In addition, other measures Rockefeller is reportedly considering attaching to STELA would dismantle the retransmission consent system or otherwise harm local TV broadcasters, including:

  • Removal of the basic tier and buy-through protections
  • DMA modification
  • Elimination of the TV sweeps rule
  • Online programming restrictions
  • Forced carriage/binding arbitration

How consumers would feel about their lawmakers making it harder and more expensive for them to watch their favorite programming, local news and emergency information is not entirely unclear.  But what is abundantly evident is that any of the proposed changes would endanger millions of Americans’ access to highly valued local news, emergency information and national network entertainment programming.

For that reason, TAB and NAB continue to advocate for a “clean” reauthorization of STELA.

The House already has passed STELA legislation after fending off attempts by Pay-TV lobbyists to gut the retransmission consent system and abolish the basic tier and buy-through restrictions, though it retains language that would shutter many stations in small markets that rely on joint sales or shared services arrangements.

And the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a clean, straightforward five-year renewal of the existing satellite TV legislation, as did its House counterpart.

The Senate Commerce Committee is the final panel slated to consider the STELA reauthorization.  With Rockefeller poised to retire in December, he has long been expected to introduce controversial proposals that would tilt the playing field heavily in the Pay-TV industry’s favor.

Texas television broadcasters are encouraged to express their concerns about this latest proposal to Senator Ted Cruz who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee.  The panel is expected to begin deliberating when Congress returns from its five-week recess on Sept. 8.

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