Compromise STELAR Passes In House

Bipartisan Backers Call It Pro-Consumer To Boost Video Market

The House today (November 19) unanimously passed STELAR, the compromise satellite reauthorization bill (HR 5728).

The bill reauthorizes (for another five years) the satellite compulsory license allowing the importation of distant network TV signals into markets without those affiliates and affects about 1.5 million satellite subs. The bill must pass the Senate and be signed by the President before December 31 or the license expires, as does the FCC's authority to enforce good faith retransmission consent negotiations.

The House unanimously passed its own version of the bill earlier this year, but that has been merged with a Senate version that passed out of committee on that side of the Congress.

But the compromise version does a lot more than that, including instituting various "consumer protections in retransmission consent" that had been sought by cable operators. During House consideration of the bill, Republicans and Democrats called them targeted, pro-consumer reforms that will help the video marketplace.

For one, it prevents coordinated retransmission consent negotiations among noncommonly owned TV stations in a market, expanding on the FCC's decision earlier this year to disallow coordinated retrans among the Top Four stations in those markets. It also prevents broadcasters from preventing the importation of significantly viewed stations into their markets.

The bill asks the FCC to reconsider the definition of good faith retransmission negotiations.

Cable operators will also be able to drop TV station programming during sweeps periods.

It also eliminates the FCC's CableCARD set-top integration ban after a year, something the National Cable & Telecommunications Association had been pushing for. The FCC will be required to start looking for a successor to that CableCARD regime, which was intended to spur a retail set-top market, but did not.

On the broadcasters' side of the ledger, the bill delays by six months the FCC's unwinding of some TV joint sales agreements.

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said the clock was ticking and urged passage of the bill in the Senate.

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) praised the sunset of the set-top integration ban provision, as did Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.). They also urged the Senate to pass the bill and get it to the President's desk.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said the bill needs to pass ASAP. He said it begins to reform the media marketplace, but there needs to be a deeper conversation next year as the House moves toward a communications law rewrite.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) said he was pleased with the bipartisan and bicameral effort that produced the bill. He also gave a shout-out to repealing the set-top integration ban, which he said is unnecessary and does not reflect technological advancement or consumer demands.

It is unclear how the bill will far in the Senate, Where Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is said to have a hold on a Senate version of the bill because, like the House bill, it sunsets the integration ban, which Markey argues is still needed.

If Sen. Markey blocks the House version as well, it might have to be added to the must-pass continuing resolution that keeps the government lights on. A House source said that is one of the routes being explored.

Add Comcast, the nations' largest cable operator, to those urging passage of the bill.

"Comcast commends the leaders of both the House and Senate Committees for acting in a timely fashion to shape the bipartisan Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR) Act of 2014, which has real benefits for consumers and competition, including phasing out the integration ban," said Comcast VP Sena Fitzmaurice. "We support its passage. Consumers today enjoy access to an unprecedented number of video programming offerings, and this legislation will help ensure that this marketplace continues to thrive and grow.”