Senate should ignore pay-TV’s STELA add-ons

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, led by Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.), is currently considering whether to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), and embrace the pay-TV lobbyist agenda advocating legislative add-ons that seek to dramatically alter the competitive landscape of the U.S. video marketplace. 

As a recurring event in Washington, the STELA reauthorization process typically invokes a narrowly tailored debate among parties interested in the delivery of local and distant broadcast TV signals to their customers.   

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Yet, this year’s effort is significantly broader in scope with the well-funded pay-TV lobby seeking to advance legislation designed to give the cable and satellite TV industry the upper-hand over TV broadcasters in retransmission consent negotiations and the fierce battle for valuable local advertising revenues.

The Senate is contemplating a blanket prohibition on multiple TV stations from entering into joint retransmission consent negotiations and joint sales agreements to secure advertising revenues, while pay-TV operators remain free to negotiate jointly to sell local advertising without regulatory restriction. 

Moreover, Rockefeller and Thune are considering whether to eliminate the lifeline basic service tier on the cheapest cable programming package that would negatively impact the affordability of and access to broadcast content for America’s pay-TV viewers.

Beyond distorting the existing regulatory playing field, the pay-TV lobbyist-supported STELA add-ons would hinder the ability of mid-size and smaller local TV stations to effectively tap into their main revenue streams.

Make no mistake: the sustainability and ultimate survival of America’s local broadcasters is threatened by this so-called pay-TV-led ‘reform’ effort.  

If enacted, the legislative add-ons crafted by the pay-TV industry would lead to many smaller local TV stations across the U.S. going dark, leaving portions of the nation’s TV viewers without access to local news and programming, weather updates, and vital emergency alerts and warnings.   In many cases, these stations are the sole provider of this type of community-based information.

In today’s challenging economic times, many American households are mindful of expenses.  The pay-TV agenda to remove local channels from the lifeline basic service tier, would essentially force them to pay significantly more to receive those channels from the local TV stations that do remain on the air.  For consumers where affordability is really crucial, such as older Americans on fixed incomes, rural consumers and underserved minority communities, this legislative proposal would deny access to a publicly-supported service intended to foster localism and empower the communities they serve.

In circumstances where local TV stations go off the air, millions of Americans that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcast TV via an antenna for their news, local programming and public safety-related information would lose.

At present, more than 1.1 million viewers in South Dakota, Missouri and Arkansas collectively rely exclusively on free, over-the-air (OTA) broadcast TV.  The proposed STELA legislative add-ons would jeopardize the long-term viability of many local TV stations in these vastly rural states, as well as broadcasters operating in other states with similar geographic characteristics.  Pay-TV industry-supported STELA legislative add-ons would threaten residents’ access to local news and programming, and potentially life-saving emergency alerts and warnings, with no alternative options. 

If local TV broadcasters have to board up their windows on Main Street America, who would remain to deliver these valuable services?  

Congress should pause and think carefully about the potential impact these legislative proposals would have on small-town America.

For example, what are the immediate and long-term implications for public safety if smaller local TV stations disappear?   Communities in South Dakota are vulnerable to severe seasonal flooding every spring, while regions of Missouri lie in the heart of tornado alley, where severe weather recently left small towns northeast of Kansas City devastated.  In late April, deadly tornadoes and severe thunderstorms ripped through parts of Arkansas, causing chaos and destruction in the impacted communities.  

These storm-devastated communities relied on their local TV stations—not Philadelphia, Los Angeles or New York based cable and satellite networks—as their primary source for breaking news on storm developments and guidance on the life-saving evacuation or shelter-in-place precautions they should’ve been taking.  

Furthermore, even pay-TV subscribers would have to live with the negative consequences of the reforms sought by the cable and satellite lobbyists.  In areas where smaller broadcast TV stations go off the air, the average pay-TV subscribers would no longer have an alternative outlet to receive their local news. 

While  satellite TV providers and cable companies could theoretically import a distant local TV station’s signal from a market outside the impacted communities, those TV stations would not be reporting the ‘hometown news’ viewers have come to rely on and expect across America.

One day, America’s local TV stations may disappear all because of the powerful pay-TV industry’s successful efforts at lobbying behind closed doors in Washington.

Hopefully, Congress will pause, consider the negative impact that these proposed STELA changes will have on small towns across America, and, instead, move to defend these communities by ensuring balance between TV broadcasters and the pay-TV industry.     

Kenny is the director of Public Affairs for TVfreedom.org, a coalition of local broadcasters, community advocates, network TV affiliate associations, and other independent organizations. He formerly served as press secretary at the FCC.

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