Can Congress save TV?

Unless Congress acts, more than a million satellite TV subscribers could turn on their TV next year and miss out on news, hit shows and sporting events.

On Dec. 31, the law allowing satellite television companies like Dish and DirecTV to carry out-of-market broadcast channels to many rural customers expires.

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Unless Congress takes action, that means some subscribers won’t be able to watch ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox as of next year.

And it’s no sure thing Congress will act.

While renewing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) is one of the few must-pass bills this year, many observers expect it to become entangled in larger fights between cable, satellite and broadcast providers.

A deadlock might make a short-term extension of the law the only way out.

“You know, I suppose there’s always a possibility, like there is around here, that you get some sort of a short-term extension until we get a chance to do a more complete process with it, but we’ll see,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.

“The goal is to try and get it done.”

The law allows satellite providers to import broadcast signals to an estimated 1.5 million rural consumers who are unable to pick up the broadcasts on their own. The legal authority for the companies to provide local broadcast channels to people who would otherwise be able to pick them up with an antenna does not expire.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) on Thursday released an eight-page discussion draft to reauthorize the 2010 bill for another five years.

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which Walden leads, will hold a hearing on the issue on Wednesday.

Walden had previously pushed for a “clean” reauthorization of the law, which gives a blanket license to deliver distant signals from a broadcast affiliate, but backed off that in the new draft. Instead, the bill would make a handful of changes to “discrete issues” that lawmakers had raised over the last year, he said.

Critics say that the existing rules for cable and satellite TV are out of date, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are likely to see STELA as the best short-term vehicle for making edits to broader video market rules.

“The laws don’t work,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). “The laws don’t work for today’s technology. They were [written] in 1992 and ‘96, and we’re in a very different world now. We need to update the laws and make them work for today’s marketplace and today’s consumers.”

Scalise has been one of the most vocal supporters of a more dramatic overhaul to video laws. The update to STELA, he said, would be just one way to get the job done.

“I think there are going to be provisions that are going to be in this bill and there are going to be other provisions that’ll be discussed in a more broader context either later this year or early next year,” he said.

“A lot of members are really interested in this now and we’re going to solve some of these problems today. We’re going to solve more of them in the future.”

Walden on Thursday suggested that a proper venue for that discussion might be the Energy and Commerce Committee's ongoing work to update the Communications Act, a law first passed in 1934 but not significantly updated since 1996. The committee earlier this year began a thorough review of that law, which governs the authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but any overhaul is expected to take years.

In addition to reauthorizing the satellite TV authority, the draft bill released by Walden last week also appears to impose limitations on the FCC’s ability to write new rules for the way that broadcasters sometimes team up to sell advertising time on each others' stations or band together to negotiate with cable providers.

Consumer advocacy groups, cable companies and Democrats have urged the FCC to write new rules on the issue, and cheered FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s announcement on Thursday that he would explore the issue. That effort could be undermined by the new provision.

John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney at the consumer interest group Public Knowledge, said he was “not happy at all” with the provision’s presence in the draft. He also opposed an effort to end rules requiring security cards in set-top boxes, which he said limits competition. Supporters of ending the rules say the devices are duplicative and raise consumer costs.

In an about-face, Walden’s draft dropped a provision from earlier reported versions, which would have eliminated rules requiring cable providers to keep certain broadcast channels on the lowest tier of programming.

Broadcasters, who were fiercely opposed to the potential rule change, applauded the draft version.

Gordon Smith, head of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement that the trade group was “extremely encouraged” by the draft and “is pleased to support” it.

While the House may be moving forward with action this week, progress in the Senate has been slower.

Senators on the Commerce Committee recently wrote a letter to companies from the satellite, cable, broadband and broadcast sectors, as well as public interest groups and think tanks, to probe their thoughts on how to proceed.

“Hopefully we’ll get some feedback from them and we’ll make some decisions,” Thune told The Hill.

“We know where the House is looking at doing some things that might be more than just a straight reauthorization. We’re interested in that but we want to hear out feedback from the community.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the panel’s chairman, told The Hill that he had not yet decided whether or not to attach any reforms to the larger video market to the current STELA bill.

-- This story was corrected on March 9 at 12:53 p.m. to clarify that the law needing reauthorization only affects rural consumers unable to pick up broadcast signals with an antenna.