09.24.09

Senate Panel Reports Leahy-Authored Bill To Modernize Satellite TV Services

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday approved legislation to reauthorize the expiring statutory licenses that permit satellite providers to retransmit broadcast stations to consumers.  The bipartisan Satellite Television Modernization Act was introduced last week by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).  Leahy is the chairman of the Committee.

The Satellite Television Modernization Act will modernize and simplify portions of the statutory licenses used by satellite television providers, while making adjustments that will encourage satellite providers to make more local content available.  At a meeting Thursday, the Committee adopted an amendment to further clarify and improve the legislation.  The Leahy-authored bill includes a provision that will particularly benefit Vermont satellite television customers in Vermont’s southern-most counties, allowing DISH Network viewers, like DirecTV viewers, to receive Vermont broadcast stations by satellite.  The legislation will also make it easier for satellite providers to serve local markets that are missing a network affiliate.

“This legislation will modernize and streamline the statutory licenses that allow cable and satellite providers to retransmit the content of broadcast television signals to their subscribers,” said Leahy.  “The transition to digital television earlier this year requires Congress to update the licenses, which are currently based on the now outdated analog standard.  This bill will make those needed changes.  This is important to Vermonters, and to people across the country, and I hope the Senate will consider this bill promptly.”

The amendment adopted Thursday makes several improvements to the legislation including:

  • Corrections to the phantom signal provision
  • Defines as “served” a home that receives either a good quality digital or analog signal
  • Clarifies that stations carried under the short market provision of section 122 are not part of the carry-one-carry-all requirement
  • Applies the Grade B bleed fix in all markets, rather than just short markets
  • Grandfathers current distant signal subscribers, so that they do not need to be requalified
  • Provides a more accurate definition of where local service is available
  • Strikes the channel positioning provision of the public television provision
  • Directs the Copyright Office to study and report within one year on proposals to phase-out the statutory licenses.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a February 25 hearing to examine the satellite provisions which are set to expire on December 31.  The legislation reported Thursday draws on recommendations made by the United States Copyright Office in a June 2008 report.  Congress first passed the Satellite Home Viewer Act in 1988 and it was last reauthorized in 2004.     

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Opening Statement
Executive Business Meeting
September 24, 2009

This morning we have the opportunity to make progress on a number of items on our agenda.  I have been terribly disappointed over the past several weeks that we have not made more progress on the Free Flow of Information Act.  I placed that matter on the agenda some time ago and have worked with Senator Schumer and Senator Specter, the lead sponsors, and with the administration, and I tried to work with Republican Senators to proceed as we did last Congress to report the bill to the Senate.  I have tried to be fair to all, and to allow time for the sponsors to have discussions that could lead to moving this important legislation.  I support it now as I did when I cosponsored it and worked as Chairman to report it last Congress.

I was pleased to hear Senator Schumer say last week that discussions are making progress, and I look forward to those discussions culminating in more movement and support for the bill soon.  Today Senator Schumer, a leading proponent, and several Republican opponents, cannot be with us because of the Finance Committee markup of health care reform legislation.  In spite of the time we have devoted to the measure over several months and, in particular, the last two weeks, in light of the unavailability of interested Senators, and in light of the ongoing discussions, I do not believe we will be able to break through the opposition today and end debate on that measure and have it voted on—up or down.

I do hope that we can make progress on the nine presidential nominations on the agenda today.  We will hold over those that Republicans wish to hold over under our rules, but I hope that we can proceed to report several to the Senate, including the nomination of Ignacia Moreno to head the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice.

I also believe we can, in relatively short order, work through and report the Satellite Television Modernization Act.  This is bipartisan legislation that I have worked through with Senators Sessions, Kohl, Hatch and Kyl, and that must be enacted without delay. Without it, televisions can literally go dark in many areas of the country come December.  None of us wants that to happen. A predecessor of our Ranking Member, another member of this Committee who represented Alabama, used to joke that the satellite dish was the unofficial state flower of that State.  I think it is the unofficial state flower in many rural regions of our States.   

Our legislation will modernize and streamline the statutory licenses that allow cable and satellite providers to retransmit the content of broadcast television signals to their subscribers.  The transition to digital television earlier this year requires Congress to update the licenses, which are currently based on the now outdated analog standard.  This bill will make those needed changes.

Important changes in this bill will make it easier for satellite carriers to provide a full complement of network stations to viewers, as well as improve their ability to offer local stations.  In addition, this legislation will facilitate the ability of satellite providers to launch local-into-local service in markets they do not currently serve.  As satellite carriers begin to offer local service in more markets, the distant signal license will become less necessary, allowing it to be gradually phased out.

This legislation also makes an important change to the license used by cable providers by solving the so-called “phantom signal” issue, whereby cable systems pay copyright owners for content that their subscribers are not actually receiving.  I was pleased that the members of the content community and the cable industry were able to come together to help resolve this issue, and this bill would amend the statute to reflect that.

The substitute amendment that I am offering this morning makes a number of necessary technical changes to the bill.  It also contains a provision to provide for a study by the United States Copyright Office on concrete proposals to move away from compulsory licenses. I thank Senator Hatch for working with us on this matter.  He has long been a leader on these matters and we would not be able to move forward today but for his efforts.  

A lot of work has been done to bring the satellite bill forward today.  The bill is not everything anybody wanted, but it is a good legislative product that needs to more forward and should move forward.  I hope that the Committee will report this bill favorably today and hope that we can do so in a bipartisan manner.

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Satellite Television Modernization Act
Bill Summary – For Background Purposes Only

The Satellite Television Modernization Act reauthorizes the expiring statutory licenses that permit satellite providers to retransmit broadcast stations for consumers.  The Act will modernize and simplify the licenses, while making adjustments that will encourage satellite providers to make more local content available.

The Act makes numerous technical amendments needed to bring the statutory licenses into the digital age, including by defining an unserved household based on the ability of a consumer to receive a good quality digital signal, rather than an analog signal.

The Act makes a number of minor improvements that will facilitate the ability of both DirecTV and DISH Network to provide local signals to local markets.  A satellite provider is more likely to provide local signals in a market when the provider can offer all four major broadcast networks.  In markets that do not have a station affiliated with each network, the satellite provider must bring in an out-of-market affiliate.  The improvements in the Act will make it easier for DirecTV to use the distant signal license for this purpose and will provide DISH with the ability to bring-in the missing affiliate from an adjacent market if it obtains the consent of the broadcaster.

The Act expands access to low power stations by broadening the license for low power stations to cover the entire local market.  Currently, a satellite provider can only carry a low power station within 20-35 miles of the station’s transmitter, which as a practical matter makes it nearly impossible for a satellite provider to use.

The Act permits a satellite provider to carry a noncommercial educational broadcast station from within a consumer’s state if the station is part of a state-wide network, even if the station is licensed to a community in a different local market.

The Act addresses the “phantom signal” issue in which, under current law, cable providers may be required to pay royalty fees under section 111 based on subscribers who do not receive the content for which the royalty is being paid.

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