'Local’ Agenda at SHVERA Hearing

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Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the House Communications Subcommittee chairman, last week expressed hope that industry negotiations would allow his panel to address the issue of local-into-local satellite-TV service to all 210 markets.

That and other issues related to carriage of local TV stations was not a part of a draft bill that was the subject of a hearing last week on the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act (SHVERA).

But while the bill was primarily a straight reauthorization that also updated the measure’s language for the digital age — per Boucher’s pledge to try introduce a bill that would pass without getting held up — the hearing was all about those other issues.

Boucher last week reiterated his desire for a bill that would not get into “extraneous” issues like retransmission consent. If a split-market fix is introduced, though, broadcasters argue that the bill becomes a retrans measure by default. That’s because it weakens program exclusivity, and thus their hand in negotiations, stations said.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said he thought that there would be “sympathy” on the panel for addressing the problems of both “short markets” (which lack at least one local broadcast affiliate) and “split markets” (which cross state lines, but where satellite companies cannot now import stations from adjacent markets to give viewers an in-state station).

The bill is expected to remain satellite-only, though Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) could try to introduce his split-market bill — which applies to cable as well — as an amendment during that markup. Ross could not do it himself, since he is not a member of the committee. But a member who shares his concerns could introduce it for him, such as Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), who talked at the hearing about not orphaning viewers by denying them full access to out-of-market stations.

According to Boucher, DirecTV and Dish Network have a proposal on the table to share the costs of delivering local into local TV station signals to all markets. Currently, DirecTV is in about 150 markets and Dish in more 180, but 30 markets are left without local TV stations available via satellite provider.

Boucher estimated that the cost would be about $30 million and asked National Association of Broadcasters TV Board chairman Paul Karpowicz of Meredith Broadcasting, a witness at the hearing, if that was something the broadcasters would entertain. He testified that NAB had a working group of engineers and board members studying the proposal, but said it did not yet have enough information on the real costs of the proposal to “determine our level of participation.”

Broadcasters and satellite providers were essentially divided on split markets. Karpowitz and Preston Padden, The Walt Disney Co.’s top man in Washington, said the issue of delivering local content could be — and was already being — addressed without a change in law. But the satellite providers and distant-signal distributor National Programming Service said the law needed to be changed to allow adjacent-signal importation.

Padden and Karpowicz pointed out that stations and cable operators currently negotiate for the delivery of local news to so-called “orphan” viewers in markets that cross state lines. What they oppose is allowing everything on the station — including duplicative network and syndicated programming — to be imported. That wreaks havoc with the programming exclusivity that their advertisers expect and are paying for, they argued. Without that exclusivity, they contended, it is tougher to support local news and the kind of national content their viewers want.

Satellite operators on the panel countered that it was not viewer-friendly to black out 90% of a station’s programming to deliver only the local news, and that it was technically difficult.