House Committee Approves Satellite Reauthorization Bill
Grants Satellite Operators A Compulsory License To Carry Distant TV Station signals, Includes Dish Provisions
John Eggerton 10/15/2009 2:53:41 PM

The House Energy & Commerce Committee Thursday approved reauthorization of the bill granting satellite operators a compulsory license to carry distant TV network station signals. The bill includes a provision allowing Dish network back into the distant network signal business in exchange for reaching all 210 markets.

It is not clear how an amendment requiring Dish to deliver all noncommercial stations' HD signals on an accelerated timetable could affect that commitment, however. Dish told the committee in a letter that it would be impossible for it to comply with the timetable, and believes it is unconstitutional.

The Satellite Home Viewer Reauthorization and Extension Act, which will likely have a new name by the time it is done, grants a blanket license to satellite operators to import distant TV network affiliate stations to viewers in a market who can't get a viewable version of their local affiliate.

The bill has some other additions from the version that passed out of the Communications Subcommittee in the summer. For one, it makes clear that satellite operators are not required to carry TV stations' multicast signals.

To address the concerns of Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) about delivering in-state stations to viewers in so-called split markets that straddle state lines, the FCC is directed to study whether Nielsen DMAs are the best way to determine those TV markets and best-serve the viewers, satellite operators and broadcasters. The problem is in 100-plus so-called orphan markets where viewers may not get in-state stations because their market is primarily in another state.

Another amendment requires the FCC to study whether the standard for a viewer receiving a viewable in-market TV station signal--which precludes a satellite operator from importing a distant signal to that viewer--should still be based on a 30-foot outdoor antenna.

Former Broadcaster Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked for clarification that the FCC was not being directed to conclude that the new standard should be a lowest-common-denominator small, basement antenna. Boucher said, no, that the FCC was simply being directed to collect information on different kinds of antennas given changes since the bill was originally adopted in 1988,

The bill includes an amendment, approved in the markup, that would require Dish to deliver public TV stations' HD versions on an accelerated timetable. The FCC already has a phased-in schedule that would require carriage of all HD signals by 2013. But the amendment would require 50% carriage by 2010 and the balance by 2011.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, somewhat reluctantly opposed the amendment, which passed 31 to 20 on a mostly party line vote. He said he was concerned that Dish would not be able to deliver local into local in all 210 markets and meet the accelerated HD schedule given current satellite capacity constraints.

Republicans speaking up to oppose the amendment included Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), ranking committee member, who said that consumers should be making the decision, and have the choice to go with DirecTV, which offers HD noncom signals in 152 markets--Dish only carries them in Hawaii and Alaska per a government mandate in an earlier satellite reauthorization.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) agreed that consumers could vote with their feet and switch services.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), countered that noncommercial stations and Dish had been negotiating for three years without success and that the government needed to step in to spur the process. She said if the two sides could come to an agreement before the bill passed, the amendment would "melt away." She said that Dish in its negoatiations had already said it could speed up the HD rollout.

The SHVERA bill passed out of the full committee on a voice vote and was referred favorably to the House.

It must still be reconciled with a House Judiciary version, and the House version reconciled with a Senate Judiciary version that passed out of that committee and a Communications Subcommittee version, whenever that surfaces. Because it involves both communiations and copyright issues, jurisdiction is split among Judiciary and Commerce/Energy & Commerce.

All that reconciling must happen by the end of the year or the compulsory license sunsets, which is why Boucher has said from the outset that the bills should be as free as possible of entangling amendments, like the noncom HD amendment--and issues like retransmission consent and fixes for split markets.