Senate Panel OKs Satellite Act


The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Satellite TV Modernization Act out of committee last Thursday (Sept. 24) with an additional provision instructing the Copyright Office to produce a study on phasing out the compulsory copyright license for satellite distant network TV stations’ signals.

The bill, like the version that earlier passed the House Judiciary Committee, would allow for the importation of distant signals into so-called short markets that lack one of the network affiliates or a sufficiently strong signal from a nearby affiliate. It also makes technical corrections to reflect the advent of digital TV.

Left for another day was the issue of allowing satellite operators to deliver the games of local sports teams to viewers in so-called orphan markets, wherein viewers from Wisconsin, for example, receive Minnesota-based TV stations because the market crosses state lines.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow praised the passage, saying in a statement: “We applaud the leadership of Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Sessions and their effort to gain committee approval of the Satellite Television Modernization Act. We strongly support the bill’s effort to promote continuity and to include important language that resolves the so-called 'phantom signal’ issue.

“We greatly appreciate the Committee’s support of the resolution, which is fair to both copyright owners and distributors, and look forward to working with the Senate and House to enact the Satellite Television Modernization Act into law this year.”

The addition of the phase-out study amendment was introduced by the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Leahy had signaled when the bill was introduced that he would revisit the issue of phasing out the license. The Copyright Office has already recommended doing so.

Left for more debate and possible reintroduction on the floor was an amendment, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), that would have let Wisconsin viewers in out-of-state DMAs to view Green Bay Packers games. The amendment would have allowed satellite companies to import local news and weather — and Packers games — while blacking out syndicated programming and protecting network nonduplication.

While withdrawing the amendment, Feingold urged the satellite companies and broadcasters to work out an agreement themselves to resolve the issue before the bill went to the floor.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had a similar amendment that he also did not introduce, as his staffers had assured him an agreement between stations and satellite carriers would be worked out before the bill hit the floor. “I have every intent to solve it if they don’t,” he said.

At the outset of the hearing, Leahy noted that some viewers’ TV sets could go dark if the license were allowed to sunset, which it does at the end of the year if Congress does not reauthorize.

Leahy also said that he didn’t want to work out all of the different parochial fixes in committee. He said one thing that should be on the table for consideration was a suggestion by Coburn that the final bill contain a two-year or three-year trigger, meaning that if private deals were not worked out within that time, the local carriage carve-out would kick in.

Leahy noted the cable and content industries were able to come to terms on fixing the so-called phantom-signals issue, or cases where cable operators had been paying a fee for subscribers who weren’t getting the content. He praised that effort and said that, if past was prologue, these issues could get worked out as well.