Washington -- A bill allowing satellite carriers to provide
local TV signals in direct competition with cable operators is heading to the House
Judiciary Committee with a provision, added last week, which would nullify a large
increase in satellite copyright fees.
In a move orchestrated by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the
House Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee, in a bipartisan voice vote, agreed to
roll back the copyright increase, despite the opposition of subcommittee chairman Rep.
Howard Coble (R-N.C.).
"I had truth and justice on my side," said a
giddy Boucher, who looked as surprised as anyone in the room when Coble's concerns went
unheeded by the GOP-controlled panel.
Under the Boucher amendment, the 27-cent-per-subscriber,
per-month rate for distant-network and superstation signals would be suspended retroactive
to its Jan. 1 effective date.
The old rates -- 6 cents for a network signal and either 14
cents or 17.5 cents for a superstation -- would be reinstated, and they would remain in
effect for one year beyond the passage of the bill.
"All that this amendment does is delay for one year
the effectiveness of the decision," Boucher said. "Then, if Congress doesn't do
anything, the decision would have full force and effect one year after the date of
enactment of this bill."
Boucher's amendment is similar to the bill (S. 1422)
sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that passed the Senate Commerce Committee two
Coble tried to negotiate a compromise -- reducing the rate
by 26 percent, to 20 cents per month, per subscriber -- but he was rebuffed.
"I brokered that agreement. I put that on the table,
and the copyright folks agreed to it," Coble said, adding that the satellite lobby
refused to go along.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), normally a solid supporter of
copyright interests, said he favored Boucher's amendment because he felt that the
interests of Hollywood studios and sports leagues were less threatened than the interests
of home-dish owners.
"We're talking about extraordinarily rich people and
how much they can charge the average consumer," Frank said.
Coble said he was hopeful that the full Judiciary Committee
would take up his bill (H.R. 3210) as early as this week.
Boucher's victory failed to generate support for the bill
from the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, which sent Coble a letter
March 11 outlining a host of objections.
"There are still sections that trouble us," said
Andy Paul, the SBCA's senior vice president of government affairs.
The SBCA is concerned about provisions on the eligibility
of home-dish owners to receive distant-network signals without getting into endless scraps
with local TV stations attempting to enforce their network-nonduplication rights.
The National Association of Broadcasters is concerned about
that issue, as well, especially because the Coble bill delegates to the Federal
Communications Commission the authority to draft the rules that will determine who can
receive distant-network signals.
"We think that it should be dealt with in Congress,
where they can't punt this issue [to the FCC]," said NAB spokesman John Earnhardt.
In addition to authorizing direct-broadcast satellite
local-into-local retransmission, the Coble bill would make the DBS compulsory license
permanent and eliminate the 90-day waiting period before a former cable subscriber may buy
a distant-network signal from a DBS provider.
But the bill would compel DBS companies that elect to
provide any local TV signals to carry all full-power TV stations in the market and to
comply with retransmission-consent rules.
EchoStar Communications Corp. -- the only DBS company
currently providing local TV signals -- is opposed to Coble's structuring of must-carry.
"Full must-carry is a nonstarter for us because it
means that we can't go into the market and be competitive," said EchoStar spokeswoman
Both the NAB and the National Cable Television Association
support the must-carry and retransmission-consent mandates.
Two weeks ago, NCTA president Decker Anstrom said a bill
without full must-carry requirements was an invitation to DBS companies to cherry-pick
local markets in a manner that is foreclosed to cable operators.