03.10.10

Senate Passes Leahy-Authored Extension Of Satellite TV Licenses

WASHINGTON – The Senate Wednesday afternoon passed legislation to modernize satellite television services and to reauthorize the expiring statutory licenses that permit satellite providers to retransmit broadcast stations to consumers.  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) worked with others in the Senate and House to negotiate the package.

“Ensuring that Americans have access to broadcast television content is important, and it is particularly relevant for consumers in rural areas who might not otherwise be able to receive these signals over-the-air,” said Leahy.  “The legislation that the Senate has passed today will ensure that nobody will be left in the dark for the foreseeable future.”

Portions of the bipartisan Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA), which is part of Tax Extenders Act passed by the Senate Wednesday afternoon, will expire in 2014.

The legislation will reauthorize the expiring statutory licenses that permit satellite providers to retransmit broadcast stations to consumers, and will also modernize and simplify the licenses, while making adjustments that will encourage satellite providers to make more local content available.  The legislation 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. 

“I am also pleased that under this legislation, DISH Network will be able to provide their subscribers in southern Vermont with the same service,” said Leahy.  “As soon as the DISH Network uses this authority, virtually everyone in the State will be able to access the news and information that is truly important to Vermonters, whether it is the debate over relicensing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, or the UVM basketball team’s quest to make the NCAA Tournament.”

In addition, the legislation solves the so-called “cable phantom signal” problem which, if left unaddressed, would lead to higher prices and fewer regional stations for Vermont cable customers.  In northern Vermont, for example, this provision will make it possible for Comcast subscribers to continue to receive Hockey Night in Canada, which otherwise may not have remained available. 

Leahy introduced bipartisan legislation to address the expiring Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act in September.  On September 24, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the Satellite Television Modernization Act.  The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last year to explore needed updates to the satellite provisions. 

The legislation 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.  

The legislation must be considered by the House of Representatives before it is sent to the President to be signed into law.  

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Passage Of The Satellite Television Extension And Localism Act
March 10, 2010

Today, the Senate in passing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA).  This legislation modernizes and extends important provisions of the Satellite Home Viewer Act, which contains statutory copyright licenses and Communications Act authorizations that allow for the retransmission of broadcast television signals by satellite and cable providers.

Ensuring that Americans have access to broadcast television content is important, and it is particularly relevant for consumers in rural areas who might not otherwise be able to receive these signals over-the-air.  The legislation that the Senate is passing today will ensure that nobody will be left in the dark for the foreseeable future.

The Satellite Home Viewer Act provides cable and satellite companies with statutory licenses to allow them to retransmit the content of broadcast television stations.  It also contains important authorizations in the Communications Act that facilitate these retransmissions.  Broadcast television plays a critical role in cities and towns across the country, and remains the primary way in which consumers are able to access local content such as news, weather, and sports. 

Cable and satellite providers help to expand the footprint of broadcast stations by allowing them to reach viewers who are unable to receive signals over the air.  Vermont is an example of how cable and satellite companies can provide service to consumers in rural areas who might not otherwise receive these signals. 

Vermonters will see improved service when this legislation is enacted.  As the Act has been reauthorized over the years, I have worked to improve the service that Vermonters receive from cable and satellite companies.  Residents in southern Vermont have seen improvements.  Windham and Bennington Counties are not considered part of the Burlington television market that encompasses the rest of the state, and for many years those residents were unable to receive Vermont broadcast stations by satellite.  Congress changed this in 2004, and DirecTV has been providing these Vermonters with access to Vermont stations ever since. 

I am also pleased that under this legislation, DISH Network will be able to provide their subscribers in southern Vermont with the same service.  As soon as the DISH Network uses this authority, virtually everyone in the State will be able to access the news and information that is truly important to Vermonters, whether it is the debate over relicensing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, or the UVM basketball team’s quest to make the NCAA Tournament.

One other important way that STELA will preserve and improve existing service for consumers is by correcting a flaw in the statutory copyright license for the cable industry.  An unintended result of current law is that the cable license requires the cable industry to pay copyright holders for signals that many of their subscribers do not actually receive.  This is often referred to as the phantom signal problem.  The effect of this anomaly in the law is that Comcast is required to pay copyright royalties based on their subscriber base across the northeast for the Canadian television content that is only provided to subscribers in Burlington, Vermont. 

The bill that the Senate is passing today corrects this flaw by giving the cable industry the flexibility to continue to provide signals that are tailored to local interests – signals that might otherwise have been pulled from cable line-ups.  This will benefit industry and consumers.  For instance, subscribers in Burlington will still be able to receive programming such as Hockey Night in Canada, which has been a tradition, without fear that Comcast will have to remove the channel or raise prices because it is being charged royalties based on subscribers in Boston.

In addition, the legislation will expand consumer access to their states’ public television programming and low-power, community-oriented stations that will promote media diversity.

This bill is the product of many hours of hard work and compromise among four committees in both houses of Congress.  No single member or committee chairman would have written it in this exact way, but the final language represents a fair compromise on important issues.  I would have preferred that the language approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year with respect to multicast signals be included in this legislation.  However, under the bill the Senate passed today, multicast signals will be treated differently than primary broadcast signals for a short period of time, even if they are broadcasting an additional network.  In Vermont, WFFF is the local Fox affiliate, but it carries the CW Network on a multicast signal.  This is programming that is otherwise unavailable to Vermonters.  There should be no distinction in this case between a primary signal and a multicast signal.  I appreciate the difficult nature of the issue, however, and believe that the compromise that was struck in STELA is a fair one.

The final bill language also provides a pathway to lift a court-ordered injunction that currently prevents DISH Network from using the distant signal license, in exchange for DISH launching service in all 210 television markets across the country.  Providing service to all 210 markets is a goal that I have long believed ought to be achieved.  I believe the language included in the Senate Judiciary Committee-passed bill provided better incentives for launching additional markets without lifting a court-ordered injunction.  As a matter of policy, lifting a court-ordered injunction based on copyright infringement is something I generally do not support, but others insisted upon it and it is part of the compromise embodied in STELA. 

This is a good bill that will preserve and improve the service that consumers across the country are accustomed to receiving.  I am pleased that the Senate has adopted this legislation. I look forward to its prompt consideration and adoption by the House and the President signing it into law.

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