STELAR Passes Senate

Satellite Compulsory License Reauthorized for Five Years

The just-passed Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reathorization (STELAR) Act, the House reauthorization of the satellite compulsory license, has passed the Senate by unanimous consent after being hotlined.

That is according to a joint statement from Senate Commerce Committee leaders.

The vote was on a bipartisan bill that had already passsed the House on a voice vote Wednesday (Nov. 19), so once the President signs it, it will be the law.

The bill renews for five years the compulsory license that allows satellite operators to import distant network signals to subscribers lacking a local version. It also sunsets the FCC ban on integrated set-tops, makes several retransmission consent reforms, and reauthorizes the FCC's ability to enforce good faith retrans negotiations.

"We applaud Congress for passing bipartisan legislation that makes important reforms to the outdated laws governing today’s video marketplace, while ensuring continuity of service to more than 1.5 million distant signal satellite subscribers who would, otherwise, lose service at the end of this year," said DISH and DirecTV in a joint statement. "This legislation is the result of the exceptional work and leadership of the Senate and House Commerce and Judiciary Committees. We look forward to continuing the important discussion regarding retransmission consent reform, and in particular protecting consumers from local channel blackouts.”

Hotlining is an off-the-floor way to achieve swift passage in that body by seeking unanimous consent, essentially askin anybody who has objections to register them, and if none are registered, the bill ipasses. One "nay" vote and the fast-track move fails.

The House-passed bill had bicameral and bipartisan support, and the last potential sticking point appeared to be removed after Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), said he would not block the bill (as he had a Senate version) over the provision that eliminates the integrated cable set-top ban. Markey opposed that provision, but said he supported others in the bill and would not stand in the way.

“Today’s unanimous passage of the bipartisan, bicameral STELA Reauthorization Act guarantees that 1.5 million satellite pay TV subscribers maintain access to distant broadcast network television signals," said Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), chair and ranking member, rspectively of the Senate Commerce Committee. "At the same time, the bill also makes important, common-sense and pro-consumer reforms to the nation’s video laws, many of which originated in our Senate bill that the Commerce Committee passed in September. We want to thank our House colleagues Fred Upton, Henry Waxman, Greg Walden and Anna Eshoo for working with us to find consensus. We also want to thank Senators Leahy and Grassley for their collaboration on this must-pass bill.”

Passage means there was far less drama this time around than in 2009, the last time the compulsory license was due to expire unless renewed, when a bill was not passed by the Dec. 31 due date.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association was pleased with the news. It had pushed for sunsetting the ban, and for retrans reforms.

“In passing H.R. 5728, the Senate has moved with appropriate speed to prevent consumer disruption and to enact meaningful video reforms," NCTA said in a statement. "We applaud Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune for their leadership and dedication to achieving bipartisan consensus on the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014, including action that will sunset the FCC’s outdated and ill-conceived “integration ban” at long last.  This important legislation will ensure that millions of satellite video consumers will continue to receive broadcast TV signals and will appropriately update our nation’s video laws to better reflect the realities of today’s robustly competitive video marketplace – a marketplace that grows almost daily with an ever expanding list of devices and services that put consumers in charge of deciding how to enjoy high-quality programming. We urge the President to quickly sign into law the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014.”

House Energy & Commerce Comittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who helped come up with the compromise bill that passed Nov. 19, applauded the Senate's swift action and the cooperation across the aisle that made it possible.

“When Americans flip on their TV, they aren’t thinking about legislative deadlines and complex policy negotiations – they just want it to work, with the programming they want," he said. "This bill makes sure satellite customers can keep accessing broadcast content, and it also starts the important process of modernizing our laws as consumers continue to change how and what they watch” said Upton. “I’m pleased with this bipartisan legislation that reflects the input and insight of both houses of Congress and look forward to that ongoing cooperation as we approach the dynamic issues of our innovation economy.”

The House unanimously passed its own version of the bill earlier this year, but tha twas merged with a Senate version that passed out of committee on that side of the Congress.

Cable operators had sought broader retrans changes, but they were excised earlier in the process. Still there were a number of what were billed as "consumer protections in retransmission consent" in the final bill that had been sought by cable operators. During House consideration of the bill, Republicans and Democrats called them targeted, pro-consumer reforms that will help the video marketplace.

For one, the new law prevents coordinated retransmission consent negotiations among noncommonly owned TV stations in a market, expanding on the FCC's decision earlier this year to disallow coordinated retrans among the Top Four stations in those markets. It also prevents broadcasters from preventing the importation of significantly viewed stations into their markets.

It asks the FCC to reconsider the definition of good faith retransmission negotiations and cable operators will also be able to drop TV station programming during sweeps periods.

It also eliminates the FCC's CableCARD set-top integration ban after a year, something the National Cable & Telecommunications Association had been pushing for. The FCC will be required to start looking for a successor to that CableCARD regime, which was intended to spur a retail set-top market, but did not.

On the broadcasters' side of the ledger, the bill delays by six months the FCC's unwinding of some TV joint sales agreements.