Conyers Shakes Up Judiciary Committee

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Washington—House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) is shaking up a subcommittee that would have been an important stop in the cable industry's effort next year to get Congress to focus on whether TV stations are demanding too much cash from cable operators as a condition of carriage.

Conyers has decided to take full control of all issues related to intellectual property, including statutes related to cable and satellite TV licenses to retransmit local TV stations to their subscribers, a Judiciary Committee aide said Wednesday.

In effect, Conyers has opted to strip IP jurisdiction from the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property and place it under his own control.

"What chairman Conyers had decided to do is keep the intellectual property jurisdiction of that subcommittee at the full committee, and then take the antitrust jurisdiction, which was held at the full committee, and put that in the subcommittee," said a Judiciary aide, who asked not to be identified.

The aide said there was a practical element involved in that the subcommittee was getting too large as a result of strong member interest in IP issues.

In late 2009, a key provision of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act of 2004 (SHVERA) is set to expire. Cable is hoping that debate on extending SHVERA will provide the platform to discuss retransmission consent—the ability of TV stations to withhold their signals from cable operators until their compensation demands have been met.

The expiring SHVERA provision allows satellite TV providers to sell New York City affiliates of ABC, CBS NBC and Fox to rural subscribers around the country who get fuzzy reception of their local TV stations.

The cable and satellite TV industries will need to take their issues directly to Conyers.

Last year, Conyers supported legislation opposed by cable that would have barred states from enacting discriminatory taxes against DirecTV and Dish Network. Cable operators argued that the state taxes were akin to their local franchise fees, creating a level playing field.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee shares jurisdiction over SHVERA.

Conyers is taking control of the IP agenda at a time of uncertainty about the subcommittee's future leadership.

Current subcommittee chairman Howard Berman (D-Ca.) can't stay in that position after December under House Democratic Party rules because he will also be chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

"With Mr. Berman leaving the subcommittee, the opportunity presented itself for Mr. Conyers to take over a leadership role on these issues," the Judiciary Committee aide said. "As everybody knows, chairman Conyers has long had an interest in IP issues,"

Conyers's decision to take control the IP agenda is considered a victory for Hollywood and its effort to get Congress to crack down on Internet piracy of TV shows and hugely expensive films. Hollywood studios were concerned that Berman's successor would be Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who is viewed by Hollywood as an ally of the consumer electronics industry's less stringent notions about fair use of third-party video on the Internet.

"It's something Mr. Conyers had been interested in for a long time," the House Judiciary aide said. "It's not a statement against anybody's candidacy [for subcommittee chairman]."

The organizational shake up needs to be ratified in January at the full committee's first meeting.

"It's usually a perfunctory and pro forma kind of thing," the House Judiciary aide said.

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