Congress Wades Into Satellite License

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WASHINGTON — STELA! That was the cry last week not of a lust-lorn Stanley Kowalski, but of media reporters prepping for another marathon march toward reauthorization and modification of the satellite compulsory-license regime.

The House Communications Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing Feb. 13 on renewing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) for another five years. It is scheduled to expire at the end of 2014. STELA provides the blanket license that allows satellite operators to deliver distant signals to subscribers who cannot get a viewable signal from their local TV-station affiliate.

Among those asked to testify include the National Association of Broadcasters, the Motion Picture Association of America, and satellite companies DirecTV and Dish Network.

It may seem early to begin focusing on the renewal process two years early. Last time out, though, the drawn-out and contentious process to extend the measure wound up extending well past two years, with a series of fiscal cliff-like extensions that took the measure almost six months beyond its Dec. 31, 2009, expiration date.

At one point, the license technically expired and the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which shares jurisdiction with Energy & Commerce over the license issues, contacted copyright holders and satellite operators asking them to continue to operate as though the license was still in place and promising to make the license retroactive, which they did.

Issues in dispute included macro ones, such as whether there should still be a compulsory license at all or whether broadcasters should negotiate individually, and more parochial ones, such as constituents whose gerrymandered Nielsen markets mean that they can’t legally receive the games of favorite local pro or college sports team. Though parochial, access to sports always seems to get the attention of legislators.

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