STAVRA Bill Passes Senate Commerce

Amendment Falls a Senator's Rise to Support Passable Bill
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With entangling amendments dropping like flies in deference to the retiring committee chairman and the need to get a bill that would pass, the Senate Commerce Committee swiftly and without drama approved a relatively clean version of the STAVRA satellite reauthorization bill Wednesday.

A number of cable-unfriendly amendments, and some broadcasters didn't like, had been proposed by a variety of senators that would have delayed the ban on integrated set-tops, gotten the FCC more deeply involved in enforcing customer service, probed sports perograming costs, and more.

But one by one those were withdrawn after their sponsors got to take the floor and make their case, and the bill, S. 2799, The Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act, passed by voice vote.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-w.Va.) sympathized with many of those, and thanked their sponsors for understanding the need to push those to another time or bill so that STAVRA could pass by the end of the year. If not, he pointed out, 1.5 million satellite customers could lose access to TV station signals.

He promised Sen. Claire McCaskill that he would hold a hearing on customer service issues--she withdrew her amendment on that issue--and said she should chair it.

He advised Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who withdrew his amendment on getting the FCC to study the impact of sports programming costs on cable bills — that he would ask the GAO to conduct such a study.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) dropped his amendment that would have grandfathered any joint sales agreement struck before the FCC voted March 31 to make some TV JSA's attributable as ownership interest. Rockefeller said he disagreed but respected the position that reach-back regulation did not appeal to Blunt.

Broadcasters had also dodged a bullet after Rockefeller and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) dropped their 'local choice" proposal from the bill that would have radically remade the retrans.

Thune said that at least it had prompted an important conversation that should continue after the election break and into next year.

The bill is relatively clean. At base it renews the compulsory license that allows satellite operators to deliver distant network signals and the FCC's authority to enforce good-faith negotiations. It puts Congress' stamp on an FCC effort to prevent coordinated retransmission consent negotiations among non-commonly owned stations in the same market — which broadcasters have signaled they can live with — and eliminated the ban on integrated set-tops, both of which cable operators were pushing for.

Cable operators were pleased that the bill had not been loaded with those amendments.

"Sen. Rockefeller and Sen. Thune deserve high praise for drafting a bill that represents a clear break with the status quo, and their cooperative approach affirms our faith in the notion that bipartisanship is an essential ingredient to producing good public policy," said American Cable Association President Matthew Polka. "ACA thanks all members of the Senate Commerce Committee for their work on and their passage of STAVRA. ACA's support for STAVRA is firm and unequivocal, and the independent cable community looks forward to securing final Senate and House approval of this badly needed pro-consumer, pro-competition measure before the end of the year."

"Today's passage of STAVRA is a clear and convincing victory for those fighting to fix our broken retransmission consent system," said the American Television Alliance. "When lawmakers first considered updating STELA last year, broadcasters called for letting it sunset. Then, they called for a "clean" bill. Fortunately for consumers, Congress ignored their obfuscation. STAVRA contains several significant provisions that will help curb skyrocketing retrans fees and blackouts, despite broadcasters' wishes. We thank Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune and the rest of the Committee for their work on this important issue."

TVFreedom.org, mostly broadcasters fighting the retrans reforms being pushed by ATVA, were cautiously optimistic and focused, not surprisingly, on the absence of the 'local choice' provision.

"We are encouraged by the Senate Commerce Committee's bipartisan effort to eliminate provisions that would have hurt the public interest and cost consumers considerably more on their monthly pay-TV bill," said spokesman Robert Kenny. "We now need a greater public dialogue about the future of the video marketplace, and how to best protect consumers from greedy pay-TV providers."

“We are pleased that the committee today advanced the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA) that would ensure 1.5 million satellite pay TV subscribers maintain access to distant broadcast network television signals and would make several pro-consumer reforms to the nation’s video policy," said Rockefeller and Thune in a joint statement. "It is always hard to find unanimity in the legislative process, but we think our bill is a strong, bipartisan consensus measure that we hope garners widespread support as it moves to the floor. Those 1.5 million Americans are dependent on Congress acting on the STELA reauthorization before the end of the year – something we hope our colleagues remember as STAVRA advances through the legislative process. And although Local Choice proved to be something that was too big and bold to be included in STAVRA due to the limited time we have, we are pleased that we were able to start a conversation about the proposal, a conversation which we intend to continue.”

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