On TV bill, Senate Dems debate a rerun

Greg Nash

Democrats are divided over whether to use the looming expiration of a law governing satellite television to push through sweeping policy changes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a “clean” reauthorization bill on Tuesday, splitting with Democrats on the House and Senate Commerce committees who have pushed for reforms in the television marketplace.

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In a statement introducing the bill, Leahy said his narrow focus “may not please all stakeholders.”

“My focus is on the consumers who stand to lose access to broadcast television content in the event that Congress is unable to pass a bill by the end of the year,” he said.

The bipartisan bill from Leahy and ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) would reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) for five years.

Central provisions of STELA are set to expire at the end of December. If the law lapsed, satellite television companies would no longer be able to beam popular broadcast programming into some subscribers’ homes.

“If Congress does not act by the end of the year to reauthorize the distant signal license, approximately 1.5 million consumers will lose access to the broadcast television programming that they are currently receiving,” Leahy said.

Some Democrats see the deadline as leverage and are pushing reforms that they say could help combat rising prices for cable and satellite services.

Specifically, lawmakers have called for changes to the “retransmission consent” system through which broadcasters negotiate the rates cable and satellite companies will pay for their programming.

Broadcasters defend the current system by saying the negotiations ensure fair competition. But critics, including public interest groups and cable and satellite companies, say the system gives broadcasters too much power, because they can band together and threaten blackouts to negotiate for higher fees.

Leahy acknowledged those calls but reiterated his commitment to keep his STELA reauthorization bill narrow.

“Some would like Congress to use this legislation as a vehicle to enact significant changes to the current system that governs the relationship between broadcast television stations and distributors,” he said. “Others would prefer that Congress not act at all and simply allow this license to expire.”

Leahy said his bill would ensure that consumers “are not left in the dark come Dec. 31.”

One person familiar with the discussions said the narrowly focused approach would be easier for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring to the floor.

 National Association of Broadcasters CEO Gordon Smith praised Leahy and Grassley “for their serious approach to this reauthorization and producing a bill that can garner the support of all stakeholders.”

Others are warning that a “clean” reauthorization would be a missed opportunity.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) told The Hill Tuesday that he plans to introduce a STELA reform bill with changes to the system.

Earlier this year, Rockefeller — along with Commerce Committee ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman and ranking member of the Commerce subcommittee on communications, respectively — asked companies and interest groups to weigh in on what reforms they’d like to see.

Speaking off the Senate floor on Tuesday, Rockefeller declined to comment on Leahy’s bill but said he plans to move ahead with a broader STELA reauthorization, even if that means upsetting lobbying groups.

“I got K Street upset, which I wanted to, and I want to keep them a little bit upset,” he said.

“A clean bill makes them very happy.”

Whether a broader reform bill out of the Senate Commerce Committee can mesh with Leahy’s clean reauthorization bill “is still to unfold,” Rockefeller said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently passed a STELA reauthorization bill that would make some tweaks to the video marketplace while falling short of some committee Democrats’ proposals.

According to one House Democratic aide, House members are still optimistic that the Senate will produce a STELA reauthorization bill with broader changes.

While Leahy may be trying to avoid controversy with his clean bill, others in the Senate “remain committed to reforms” that are “responsive to the changing video market,” the aide said.

“Congress has a responsibility to look at the status quo and see if it’s working for the American people.”

The American Television Alliance, which includes cable and satellite companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV, called on the House and Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees to take action to lower retransmission fees.

“The retransmission consent system is now more broken than ever and STELA is the best opportunity to help provide consumers with relief from skyrocketing retrans fees and blackouts,” the group said in a statement.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and vocal advocate for video marketplace reforms, said broader reforms are “long overdue,” but recognized the end-of-year deadline for STELA reauthorization.

Leahy’s clean reauthorization bill “reflects practical judgment that that is what could get done in the Senate,” he said.

“I see [STELA reauthorization] as an opportunity for us to make improvement, but I’m probably well short of 218 votes here [in the House] and 60 in the Senate.”