House panel passes TV bill compromise

The House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications passed a compromise bill to reauthorize the law governing satellite television, despite members’ calls for broader reforms to the video market.

The broader video reforms “will all be on the table” as the House Commerce Committee overhauls the foundational law governing the communications industry, Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said, pledging to “continue to work towards bipartisan agreement” on the more narrow satellite bill.

ADVERTISEMENT
At a Tuesday markup, members voted unanimously for Walden’s bill to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) after unanimously accepting an amendment from Walden and ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) to soften the Republican bill’s limitations on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Eshoo said she still had concerns about the bill advancing to the full committee, but had received assurances from Walden “to address the remaining concerns.”

“I think that we’re headed on a good path,” she said.

Originally, Walden’s bill would have, among other things, ended a federal requirement on security equipment for cable boxes and prevented the FCC from changing the way it regulates broadcasters that share advertising sales resources until the agency completes its overdue 2010 quadrennial media ownership review.

Under changes from Walden and Eshoo, the FCC is free to bring back the cable box security requirement, and the committee will continue to work on the provision limiting the FCC’s ability to change the way it regulates broadcasters.

Eshoo said that the FCC should complete its overdue review but noted that her amendment with Walden is “not my preferred approach.” 

“It’s their responsibility to do this. ... They need to get it done,” she said, adding that she believes current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler “is committed to getting it done.”

Members of the subcommittee pushed for multiple pieces of broader video market reform, including the “retransmission consent” system, through which broadcast companies negotiate with cable and satellite companies over compensation for broadcast programming.

Broadcasters say the system provides fair compensation for the original programming, but the system’s critics say that broadcasters — which often control affiliated cable and online content — have too much leverage when negotiating with cable and satellite companies. As a result, those companies and their subscribers pay higher fees, according to critics.

Pulling from a bill she introduced last year, Eshoo introduced and withdrew an amendment that would prevent broadcasters from using their online content as leverage when negotiating with cable and satellite companies.

She pointed to last year’s high-profile retransmission dispute between Time Warner Cable and CBS, which resulted in Time Warner Cable Internet subscribers losing access to CBS’ free online programming.

“This, to me, is really egregious,” Eshoo said. “We’ve got  to get some starch in our spines” on the imbalance of power in retransmission consent negotiations, she continued.

She said she was “deeply disappointed” that Walden and House Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) want to wait to deal with the issue as part of a broader overhaul of the Communications Act, which was last updated by the Telecommunications Act in 1996.

“We’re going to ignore it. It’s going to be put off,” she said. “Maybe we can get this done — the Telcom [Act] rewrite, whatever — by 2018.”

Members pushed for other video market reforms, including an amendment from Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) that would allow subscribers to more selectively choose the channels they subscribe to.

House Commerce Vice Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced and withdrew an amendment that would have required broadcasters who use the retransmission consent system when negotiating with cable and satellite companies to pay fees to play music on any radio stations they own.

Currently, AM/FM radio stations do not pay a performance royalty when they play music over the air.

“Broadcasters have told this committee repeatedly that retransmission consent payment is fair because cable and satellite stations make millions by transmitting local broadcast content,” she said. “When it comes to music, the same broadcasters … sing a completely different tune.”