The Senate Commerce Committee wasted no time Thursday passing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), its version of the satellite reauthorization bill.
That came by voice vote as part of a package of bills that were fast-tracked through the process so legislators could meet other commitments.
The bill extends satellite operators' license to carry distant out-of-market network TV station signals for viewers who can't received a viewable signal from their in-market station.
The measure also updates the language of the bill to reflect the switch to digital TV, like the Senate Judiciary version requires the FCC to study whether the license should be phased out in favor of marketplace negotiations.
It does not mandate or incentivize local service in smaller markets where local stations aren't delivered, but Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-V. Va.) said that was not the end of the story.
"I have heard from colleages about their desire from colleagues about their desire to incentivize satellite carriers to provide more local programing in rural markets and I agree with that. As we merge the Commerce Committee bill with the judiciary's part of the reauthorization, I will make this one of my highest priorities," he said.
The Judiciary version does not have a local-into-local incentive, though a House version does.
As reported, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) backed off from her amendment that would have mandated that Dish and DirecTV deliver local-into-local signals to all 210 markets within three years. Instead, the bill contains a mandate to the FCC to conduct a study of whether the lack of service to the remaining 30 or so markets is a matter of satellite capacity or economics.
But McCaskill said the issue should not be forgotten, and Rockefeller said it would not be. "This matter really is important. It is just stunning that all of a sudden you start hearing from people that are getting ABC out of New York in West Virgina and they're not getting anything local, and it is extremely frustrating."
He likened it to the fear Congress had with DTV that screens would go black, adding that some did: "This is something we need to correct, and be hard-nosed about it and push."
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) withdrew an amendment that would have allowed satellite operators to deliver New Mexico stations to viewers who are currently only receiving out-of-state versions of those affiliates because of the way the Nielsen market is structured.
That mirrored the withdrawl of similar bills by his colleages in the Judiciary committee with issues in their particular states. A handful of states were taken care of in a previous incarnation of the bill's reauthoriztion, which has led others to seek similar carve-outs.
The bill must still be reconciled with a Senate Judiciary version that includes a provision fixing so-called short markets, where a market lacks one or more network affiliate. Then, that must be voted on in the full Senate, and subsequently conferenced with a House version, which must be reconciled between Commerce and Judiciary versions there and voted in the full House.
That all needs to happen by the end of the year or the license expires.
While the bill does not deal with local into local, split markets --Udall's issue-- or short markets, it does containt an amendment that could threaten a local-into-local deal struck by EchoStar in the House version.
The satellite operator agreed to deliver to all 210 markets in exchange for being allowed back into the distant network signal delivery business, unless other bandwidth obligigations arose.
The Senate Commerce bill has a provision essentially cutting in half the current FCC timetable --from four years to two-- for satellite operators to deliver noncommercial stations' HD signals.
Dis in a statement indicated that it "continues to have concerns about the practical and constitutional problems associated with the PBS HD mandate."
Not surprisingly, the Association of Public Television Stations saw it differently, applauding the provision.
"APTS is pleased with the firm action taken today by the Senate Commerce Committee to end the discriminatory behavior by Dish Network against local public television stations. There is no justification for Dish Network continuing to deny its subscribers the extraordinary brilliance and clarity of public television's high-definition broadcasts in local markets all across America," said APTS president CEO Larry Sidman in a statement.
But he also said APTS would still try to negotiate a private carriage deal, as it has done with DirecTV and cable operators.
The bill also includes an incentive, but not a requirement, that satellite operators carry state public affairs networks
--essentially C-SPAN's for state governments.