Major TV changes go off the air in Senate

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Lawmakers in the Senate have abandoned plans to overhaul the way people choose which television stations are part of their cable or satellite subscriptions.

The broadcast industry revolted at the Senate Commerce Committee’s initial proposal to let people choose which broadcast channels — such as ABC or NBC — they want in their package, a proposal sometimes referred to as “a la carte TV.”

{mosads}Now the panel is set to vote Wednesday on a much narrower set of reforms to the TV market — with the channels proposal notably absent.

Advocates of the changes say that this year’s battle is part of a much larger war that they believe will eventually turn in their favor.

“It’s too big a change to be swallowed,” Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said on Tuesday. “But as people get a taste of being able to say ‘I only watch 10 channels so I should only pay for 10 channels,’ they’re going to love that. It’s going to spread like wildfire.” 

Rockefeller’s panel on Wednesday will vote to reauthorize an expiring law that allows about 1 million people in rural areas to get distant broadcast signals beamed to their satellite dishes.

Some lawmakers had hoped to use the bill’s must-pass status to force broader changes to the way people pay for TV.

Over the summer, Rockefeller and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the ranking member of the Commerce Committee, floated a plan that would impose an “a la carte” system for broadcast channels. Such a system would allow people to, for instance, pay for and receive NBC and CBS, but not ABC or Fox.

For the broadcast industry, long one of Washington’s most influential lobbies, the plan was a nonstarter. It would have devastated small local stations, they said, while giving an unfair exclusion to cable television.

The plan was shelved last week, just days after it had been formally introduced.

“What we wanted to do was introduce those ideas,” Rockefeller told The Hill this week. “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

“We had to pass the underlying reauthorization,” he added, “So it was just a practical thing.”

Still, the bill retains some more limited reforms that were cheered by cable companies who have squared off against broadcasters, including a measure banning broadcast companies from joining to negotiate deals with cable firms unless they are owned jointly. 

For supporters of television reform, action in the Senate Commerce Committee was just the latest stutter step on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers in the House Commerce Committee — one of the other three congressional panels with jurisdiction over the issue — previously floated other major changes to the TV marketplace. An early plan from members of that panel would have scrapped a requirement that cable companies include broadcast stations in their least expensive tier of service, among other provisions.

After lobbying from the broadcast industry and other pushback, however, many of those measures were scrapped by the time the bill passed the House in July. 

While House lawmakers were debating that bill, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), an outspoken proponent of television reform who is now the No. 3 House Republican, predicted that the issue would come back to the forefront before too long.

“I think there are going to be provisions that are going to be in this bill and there are going to be other provisions that’ll be discussed in a broader context either later this year or early next year,” he said at the time.

The House committee is in the early stages of a multi-year rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the foundational law that governs television as well as radio, Internet and other communications services. Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) — the chairman of the House Commerce Committee and its subcommittee on communications — have indicated that the rewrite would be a better venue for changing the way that people get their TV.

The Senate Commerce Committee is likely to follow the path of the House panel next year, but Wednesday’s hearing could offer a preview.

Thune, who is likely to take over the panel if Republicans win control of the Senate this November, is planning to introduce an amendment to reauthorize the satellite law for two years, instead of five, according to an aide.

Though Thune will withdraw the amendment before it gets an actual vote — a relatively common practice during legislative markups to state a lawmaker’s position without potentially upsetting a carefully negotiated bill — the move could be interpreted as a sign of his desire to come back to the issue sooner rather than later.

“As we get into next year, if we’re fortunate enough to be in the majority, we’ll look forward to working closely with Chairman Upton in the House and Greg Walden over there,” Thune said on Tuesday. 

“I know they’ve already given a lot of consideration to some reforms, and we’ll work with them and see where it takes us,” he added. “I think it’s probably time for us to do that.”

“It’s been a long time since we’ve visited this issue,” he added, “and a lot’s changed since then.”

Tags Jay Rockefeller John Thune

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