Washington -- Senate Commerce Committee chairman John
McCain (R-Ariz.) voiced concern last week that the effort to permit direct-broadcast
satellite carriers to transmit local TV signals has stalled.
McCain's irritation stems in part from his belief that
DBS provision of TV signals throughout local markets would serve to check cable-rate
increases without the need for government price controls.
The House passed its bill (H.R. 1554) April 27, and the
Senate passed its bill (S. 247) May 20. Because the bills are similar but not identical, a
House-Senate panel must reconcile the two versions.
But in more than two months, the House-Senate conference
committee has not met even once so that staff from both chambers could begin meeting among
themselves in an attempt to craft a unified bill.
McCain, annoyed by the lack of progress, went public with
his frustration in an Aug. 3 letter sent to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), House Judiciary
Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and House Commerce Committee chairman Tom Bliley
(R-Va.) -- the other key players in the satellite legislation.
In the letter, McCain said any attempt to blame delay on
the complexity of the legislation was groundless. Since passage of the Senate DBS bill,
President Clinton signed into law a Y2K-liability law that McCain said was just as
complicated as the DBS legislation.
"It is a shame that Congress is not acting with
similar alacrity to protect the interests of millions of satellite-TV and cable-TV
consumers now," he added.
McCain, who is a conferee, said he was "not only
prepared, but impatient" to begin the negotiations with the House.
Nothing will happen over the next few weeks because both
the House and Senate left last week for their annual August recess, and they won't
return until Sept. 7.
"We are disappointed that this [August] deadline was
passed without congressional action. We will continue to push for this legislation,"
said Chuck Hewitt, president of the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications
Association, the DBS industry's Washington lobbying arm.
Under both bills, DBS carriers would be allowed to provide
local dish owners with a full complement of local TV signals, especially the local feeds
of the major networks.
That's an important change in current law, which
limits reception of network signals to dish owners who are unable to receive their local
network affiliates with conventional rooftop antennas.
Dish owners who must rely on DBS for network signals are
considered "unserved." Broadcasters have won important court victories showing
that DBS companies have been selling distant network signals to thousands of dish owners
who are considered "served" under the law, forcing the termination of service.
Both bills would require DBS carriers to carry all local
broadcast stations in any market they serve as of Jan. 1, 2002. A firm full must-carry
deadline -- the most important lobbying goal of the cable industry -- is expected to
remain in any legislation that goes to the White House for President Clinton's
House and Senate sources floated various theories
concerning the state of inaction.
Staff members from the Senate Commerce and Judiciary
committees have met several times and prepared compromise offers to show the House.
However, congressional sources said, staff from the House
Judiciary and Commerce committees have not conducted similar meetings -- a lack of
preparation that some attributed to jurisdictional rivalry between Bliley and Hyde.
"The Commerce Committee has been trying to work with
Judiciary to get this thing moving," a House Commerce Committee source said,
dismissing reports of a Bliley-Hyde feud.
Failure to pass a new law in July caused about 450,000
C-band dish owners -- 25 percent of all C-band consumers -- to lose their network signals
July 31 under a cutoff that stemmed from the litigation.
DirecTV Inc. also shut off distant network signals late
last month to customers residing within so-called grade-A contours, according to a company
spokesman. The company had been "cautiously optimistic" that local- and
distant-signal legislation would be passed earlier this summer, before the July 31
signal-cutoff deadline imposed by a Federal District Court in Miami.
Broadcasters have also sued DirecTV rival EchoStar
Communications Corp., asking a Federal District Court judge to force that company to cut
off distant network signals to households served by local network affiliates.
EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen encouraged viewers of his
monthly customer "Charlie Chat" last week to contact their senators and
representatives in support of DBS-friendly legislation while they're back in their
home districts during the summer recess.
"Go to town meetings if they have them," Ergen
urged his subscribers.
Congressional sources and other observers remained
confident that legislation will pass this year, overhauling the Satellite Home Viewer Act.
The SHVA provision that permits DBS to provide unserved households with distant network
signals sunsets Dec. 31.
Because of the sunset, some have theorized that
broadcasters are encouraging the delay on Capitol Hill as a way of pressuring the DBS
industry to yield ground on new provisions dealing with who can legally receive distant
SBCA spokeswoman Jennifer Buckley said the DBS industry
does not expect the legislative effort to collapse, which would force the association to
lobby for just a quick extension of current law so that the local-into-local battle can be
refought next year.
"I think we are still quite hopeful that this
legislation will pass this year," Buckley said. "That is still very much our
Monica Hogan contributed to this story.