The House version of the satellite reauthorization bill -- HR 3750, the Satellite Home Viewer Reauthorization Act -- passed convincingly Thursday (394 to 11).
The bill combines the House Commerce and Judiciary versions and reauthorizes the satellite compulsory license for carriage of distant network affiliate TV station signals for another five years, a license that expires at the end of the year unless a new bill, or a stopgap extension, is passed. It also deals with some cable carriage and various copyright issues, including an audit process for copyright owners so they can make sure they get the royalties they are entitled to, stiffer penalties for infringement and clarification that their royalties apply to digital multicast streams carried by satellite.
Highlights of the communications side of the bill -- Commerce and Judiciary split jurisdiction -- include fixing the "phantom signal" problem in which cable operators were paying for signals their customers didn't receive and allowing Dish network back into the distant-signal business in exchange for delivering local station signals (local-into-local) to the remaining 28 small markets that lack them.
Dish has been prevented by a court order from delivering distant signals after the court concluded it had problems determining who was eligible to receive them. The bill enhances penalties for any future problems and requires a GAO audit of Dish.
But it also has an amendment that would require Dish to deliver high-definition noncommercial station signals on an advanced timetable--by 2011 instead of the FCC's current 2013, a timetable Dish has said it can't meet.
The local-into-local provision in the bill is essentially a legislative stamp on a deal struck between broadcasters and satellite companies, and there is a provision in that deal that additional carriage burdens might invalidate.
Legislators suggested that the amendment would not be a poison pill to the local-into-local deal, suggesting Dish might be close to its own deal with noncommercial stations that would moot the amendment or that even if there was no deal, Dish would be able to provide both noncommercial HD signals and local stations on the government's timetable.
The bill must now either be reconciled with two different Senate versions, or the Senate could vote to approve the House version. Either way, something has to happen or the satellite license to carry distant TV network signals expires at year's end.