Senators circulate bill to shake up TV market

Leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee began circulating legislation on Friday to overhaul the way that people choose which television channels they watch. 

The bill that Chairman Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerObama to preserve torture report in presidential papers Lobbying world Overnight Tech: Senators place holds on FCC commissioner MORE (D-W.Va.) and top Republican John ThuneJohn ThuneCongress must address student loan debt crisis, a national economic drag Republicans go to battle over pre-existing conditions GOP frustrated by slow pace of Trump staffing MORE (S.D.) presented to committee members would allow people to pick and choose which broadcast stations, such as NBC or ABC, they wanted as part of their cable package, among other changes to the regime that allows subscription TV companies to retransmit broadcast programming.

It has been met with swift pushback from broadcast companies, which could spell trouble in the short autumn legislative calendar.

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The proposal, called Local Choice, would “empower consumers by allowing them to choose the commercial broadcast content that they want to pay for as part of their pay-TV subscription, while ensuring that local broadcasters continue to receive full value for their content,” a committee aide said on Friday.

The provision is included in an otherwise uncontroversial bill to renew an expiring satellite TV law, which allows some people in rural areas to receive broadcast channels they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pick up with an antenna on their roof.

That law, known as the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), has already been renewed by the three other congressional committees with jurisdiction on the issue. Renewal is considered a “must-pass” item before the law expires this year, which could make it a hard sell to use for comprehensively reforming the current TV marketplace.

Since it was first unveiled last month, the Commerce Committee leaders’ plan has become the focus of an intensifying battle between satellite and cable companies — which have supported it — and broadcasters that are opposed.

The bill's “a la carte” system for broadcast channels “will lead to higher prices and less program diversity,” National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said in a statement on Friday. 

American Cable Association President Matt Polka, who represents small cable companies, retorted that it is “a bill that puts the interests of consumers first.”

The American Television Alliance, which includes cable companies as well as some consumer advocacy groups, has begun to run radio and print ads in support of the overhaul and said on Friday that the proposal would “bring relief” to consumers.