Ross Introduces Split-Market Bill

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Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) has just introduced his Local TV Freedom Act, which would attempt to fix the so-called issue of split TV markets.

According to a spokesman, he has secured 10 co-sponsors.

Split markets are Nielsen DMAs that cross state lines and in which some viewers to cable and satellite services are getting the local station from the adjacent state rather than their own.

Ross sent out a "Dear colleague" letter late last week looking for sponsors for the bill, which he has introduced in a previous Congress, though in a slightly different form.

"The time has come to stop delivering 21st century technologies with 1950's business practices," said Ross in announcing the bill. "Americans should not be bound by outdated laws that prevent them from receiving their home-state programming. Everyone who wishes to receive their local channels in their home state should have the option to do so, and that is why I am proud to introduce this legislation to ensure that all Arkansans have access to Arkansas programming.

"Arkansans want to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks, and my bill will give those who live on or near the border of another state the ability to watch the Hogs-not the LSU Tigers."

The bill is narrower than his 2007 version. Nevertheless, it will still run into pushback from broadcasters, who say such a change could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. They argue that allowing multichannel video providers to import local TV network affiliated stations from adjacent, in-state markets into markets that cross state lines will provide duplicative programming that adversely impacts exclusivity deals and retransmission consent negotiations.

Ross and satellite operators argue that it is simply giving local viewers access to their local stations denied by a gerrymandered DMA system. They also counter that the exclusivity argument is weakened by the availablity of most TV shows worldwide at the click of a mouse.

In the 2007 version of the bill, stations could be imported across state lines into the entire adjacent market. In this version, only the so-called "adjecent underserved counties" where the market crosses the state line will get the in-state imports.

Other new elements of the bill, according to Ross bullet points:

* The bill now is limited to only those counties where subscribers can't get home-state news, sports, and entertainment.
* It encourages MVPDs to carry both local and adjacent stations, but requires local service first.
* It requires MVPDs to negotiate retransmission consent agreements for carriage in adjacent underserved counties - except where the station is legally unable to give such consent.
* It clarifies that cable operators, like satellite operators, can carry such stations on a royalty-free basis

Broadcasters succeeded last month in keeping any split-market amendments from being added to the markup of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reuthorization Act (SHVERA), which will be the vehicle for Ross' bill if he gains sufficient support.

At that hearing, House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said he was willing to talk about the issue further and hoped for a resolution. But he did not push the issue and ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said that he "agree[d] with leaving it out of the bill at this time."

The bill needs to pass by year's end because if it doesn't, the blanket license for satellite carriage of network distant signals expires.

The American Cable Assocation weighed in in support of the bill, which applies to both satellite and cable operators.

"ACA applauds Rep. Ross for pursuing with conviction an issue that would provide great consumer benefits not only for his constituents but also for millions of voters in many congressional districts across the country," said ACA President Matt Polka. "In today's day and age, it's undemocratic to maintain regulations that block consumer access to in-state news, local emergency alerts, local public service messages, local political and issue advertising, local sports, and local commercials...It's an issue of localism that cable operators hear about from their customers as well. Cable has the technological ability to solve this problem, and we are pleased to be part of the solution in Rep. Ross's bill."

Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn added her shout-out to the bill.

"We are very pleased that Rep. Mike Ross has introduced the Local Television Freedom Act. This bill will help consumers around the country to receive the TV news and information relevant to their lives that they can't now see because of how out-of-market signals are delivered," she said in a statement. "Today, the TV channels consumers in rural areas receive are often governed by artificial market boundaries, rather than by communities of interest. As a result, some consumers receive out-of-state channels, rather than channels from stations within their states."