The House Judiciary Committee passed by voice vote Wednesday a bill extending the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999 for another five years, but without a provision that would provide a blanket antitrust exemption for delivery of local TV stations in rural markets.
Instead of a broad exemption, the panel approved an amendment by voice vote that would give the Department of Justice only 90 days to act on a request for an exemption. Failure to act within 90 days would not automatically lead to a waiver.
The antitrust provision was added as an amendment sponsored by Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) in an effort to assist DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. in sharing spectrum to provide local signals to the 90 smallest TV markets in the country.
Boucher and Goodlatte feared that the satellite companies would not spend money on new satellites or utilize scarce spectrum in order to deliver local TV signals to about 15% of U.S. homes in rural America.
The two representatives initially proposed a broad exemption, but that plan was scaled back in the face of opposition from the American Cable Association, a small-cable-operator trade group that claimed that a blanket exemption would hurt those operators competitively against financially stronger direct-broadcast satellite companies that combined serve about 22 million subscribers.
The bill (H.R. 4518) would allow satellite carriers to provide distant network stations and superstations under compulsory copyright licenses until Dec. 31, 2009. Hundreds of thousands of DBS subscribers would lose access to ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox programming after Dec. 31, 2004, without enactment of an extension.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) withdrew an amendment that would have allowed satellite carriers to beam superstation WGN -- the broadcast home of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs -- into sports bars and other commercial establishments.
Cubs games must currently be blacked out if offered to bars and restaurants that are not considered venues of home viewing. The same blackout rule, however, does not apply if the sports bar is a cable-company customer.
“It’s a matter of parity,” said Shaun Sheehan, vice president of Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs and WGN and which is backing the Hyde amendment.
A House source said the SHVIA bill -- which has already passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee -- could reach the House floor within two weeks.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has also passed a SHVIA-renewal version, but action by the Senate Commerce Committee is pending.