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Is Congress going to mess up TV?

It is not all that surprising that a retiring Senate Committee chairman would be grasping in the last days in power for one last legacy achievement, but it is shocking when the ranking member seems intent on helping him achieve it.

That appears to be the case in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, as there is a concerted effort between both retiring Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Ranking Member John Thune to pass a much-distorted reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). Their version of the STELA legislation is called STAVRA (the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act), and it contains some deeply concerning proposals to those of us who embrace the principles of a free market economy.

{mosads}Unlike many reauthorizations, STELA has not been reauthorized for periods of time in the past with little negative impact, so there is limited urgency to act. What the law does, in simple terms, is set the legal playing field for the relationship between local, over the air broadcasters and pay television companies that carry their content to their customers. 

In the rush to get to the final bell for this Congress, the Senate Commerce Committee would be making a serious mistake by adding the anti-free-market provisions of STAVRA. These regulations not only put local broadcasters at a competitive disadvantage in negotiating carrying fees with cable companies, they also usher in a large regulatory role for the Federal Communications Commission, interjecting the FCC directly into the private free market negotiations between broadcasters and cable and satellite providers. Shockingly, they also contain a provision to regulate how and what content broadcasters put on the Internet.

In the aftermath of the FCC’s scuttled plan to put content monitors into newsrooms to intimidate broadcasters, the last thing any person with a shred of concern about free speech rights should support is giving the FCC statutory authority over the Internet content that broadcasters can provide.

This sort of unprecedented regulatory overreach in the video marketplace is dangerous and the implications cannot be overemphasized. Remember that this is the same Senate that is voting on whether to eviscerate the First Amendment’s right to seek political redress. If anything, Senate Republicans should be turning over every rock seeking to roll back this administration’s power, rather than handing them even more authority. 

It is a grievous mistake for Congress to move forward, due to end-of-session time pressures, with legislation that creates contradictory standards and expands the FCC’s reach. If the reauthorization of STELA is the goal, then Congress should pass a clean bill and have a larger discussion about the overall communications laws that govern the video marketplace next year. The impact of our nation’s communications laws and freedom itself are too important to leave to end of session political wrangling. 

The author is vice president of public policy and communications for Americans for Limited Government.

Tags FCC Jay Rockefeller John Thune
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