Senate Version Of Satellite Bill Hits Hill

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A new Senate version of the satellite reauthorization bill that has been appended to a must-pass jobs bill is circulating Capitol Hill.

While a vote on the jobs bill -- actually now two bills -- was on hold due to the Washington blizzard, the satellite bill will need to get a congressional thumbs-up in the next two weeks, which is cutting it close since the Senate is supposed to be in recess all next week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday (Feb. 11) that the jobs bill had been pared back to four major items -- Build America Bonds, the highway bill, small business tax program and a job-creation portion -- with the rest of the items, currently including the satellite reauthorization, to be dealt with after next week's recess. Reid said there would be no votes this week given the number of staffers who couldn't get to work because of the snow.

House Communications & Internet Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said two weeks ago that there was agreement on the bill's language and he expected it to be able to pass soon. It has to be renewed before March 1. The license originally expired Dec. 31, but was extended for 60 days after Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee raised some objections, according to a source familiar with the bill's progress, or lack of it.

The bill renews satellite operators' blanket license to import distant network-affiliated TV stations to viewers in markets where they can't receive a viewable local version. It also creates an incentive for Dish to deliver local-into-local service, establishes a new timetable for the delivery of high-definition signals of noncommercial stations, a new method for determining who is eligible to receive the signals, and mandates a series of reports on, among other things, whether the blanket license should be phased out.

The Senate language officially renames the bill from the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act to the Senate-coined Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA).

The bill reflects the local-into-local deal struck between broadcasters and Dish, though it does not identify DISH by name. Dish agreed to provide local signals to the two-and-a-half dozen or so smaller markets without a full complement of affiliates. In return, it gets to reenter the distant network-signal business, which it has had to delegate to a third-party distributor per a court ruling that it was not accurately identifying who qualified for distant signals.

Dish will get to deliver distant signals to so-called short markets -- ones that lack one of the Big Four affiliates.

The bill will not allow the importation of a distant signal if a local version is being delivered via a digital multicast signal. For example, ABC struck deals with stations in some markets without a viewable local ABC affiliate to program one of their multicast channels with ABC network programming.

Such multicast affiliate signals will be insulated from importation of similar distant signals as of July 1, 2010, if they were in place by Dec. 31, 2009. Starting Jan. 1, 2011, all other multicast affiliates will qualify as delivering a viewable signal to viewers and thus preclude importation of a similar affiliate.

The bill also directs the FCC to report to Congress within a year on the number of viewers in each market who receive out-of-state stations and what possible alternatives there might be to Nielsen DMA markets that would result in more in-state programming.

STELA requires a report within a year on the impact of phasing out the statutory licensing system.

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