Reauthorize and strengthen STELAR and protect consumers from 'TV blackouts'
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In recent years, consumers have been confused and outraged as “TV blackouts” have become the new normal. This is particularly impactful around the time of a major sporting event or premiere episode of a popular show. In fact, I experienced it this past January when a notice flashed across my TV screen informing me that I would soon lose access to one of the major networks due to an unresolved and ongoing “negotiation” between the broadcast station and my subscription TV provider. During this blackout, I would no longer have access to my favorite late-night show, the local news, and evening programming.

While these unjust and sporadic blackouts are a concern for all of us nationwide, 870,000 consumers will confront a permanent blackout of their TV service in just a few short months. This can be avoided if members of Congress act quickly and reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELAR) before it expires at the end of the year.

A key consideration in STELA is the long-distance signal licensing provision that allows for the 870,000 mostly rural Americans to watch their TV content, whom will be greatly impacted if STELA is not reauthorized. Many of these consumers living in rural America have very limited options for TV. If the distant signal licensing provision is not included in STELAR, then they would immediately lose access to the programming that they want and subscribe to through their cable provider. In addition, the provision in STELAR that says broadcasters must negotiate in good faith will help continue to lay the right path forward to avoid TV blackouts.

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In 2019, there have been a record number of blackouts – more than 200 just this year alone. Pay TV customers are living with the real threat of TV blackouts and increased fees to watch the same content they’ve already accessed. The retransmission consent provision, which calls for fees to be paid to broadcasters by the subscription TV providers to distribute local network content, is the reason that this can happen.

Why should consumers be put in the middle of these retransmission battles? Consumers deserve to see the content that they pay for without losing access to their TV service and being subject to rising costs.

STELA dates back to an arcane piece of legislation, the Cable Act of 1992. In its time, this law addressed the lack of competition in the cable industry while also creating measures for negotiations to occur over broadcaster content. Clearly the media market has evolved since 1992. Retransmission consent gives broadcasters leverage with cable and satellite providers by demanding increased fees to help offset the broadcasters’ loss in revenue in other areas such as advertising. This is not the way to go to protect consumers.

Members of Congress have the opportunity, right now, to protect a significant number of consumers who have been feeling the pinch of increased fees and ongoing threats of blackouts this year and in the future. Ultimately, consumers are losing in the fight between broadcasters and the multichannel video programming distributors (or MVPDs – their pay TV providers). Congress must reauthorize STELA and get consumers out of this game for good.

The current situation has created space for retransmission fees to continue to skyrocket and, unfortunately, those growing fees are passed down to consumers. A stronger good faith measure is needed as part of STELAR so that broadcasters cannot threaten station blackouts unless their request for increased fees is met. Consumers have a stake in this as they are the ones bearing the costs. This provision would limit this unfair negotiating tactic and prevent the TV blackouts that consumers do not deserve and don’t understand. They just want their TV service.

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Consumers continue to lose in today’s framework—fearing the loss of their TV shows while still being forced to pay more for TV. It is clear that all consumers should have access to the content they want at a rate they can afford. While all consumers should be concerned, older adults have a special interest too because they watch a significant amount of TV and depend on access to local programming. The TV is often their go-to source for important content including local news, weather, traffic and community information that is, at times, critically important.

Congress let’s change the channel to the next generation of TV, maintain TV service for 870,00 mostly rural Americans, and #reauthorizeSTELA.

Debra Berlyn is the president of Consumer Policy Solutions and the executive director of Project GOAL, a project to raise awareness of both the benefits and challenges of innovative new technologies for the aging community.