Throughout the Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing held on February 13, satellite, broadcast and entertainment legal leaders told Congressional Committee members to make sure that consumer interests and local needs are reflected in the potential reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) of 2010.
According to the United States Copyright Office, STELA “updated and reauthorized the satellite carrier distant broadcast signal license found in Section 119 of the Copyright Act.” It also amended the cable statutory license, found in Section 111 of the Copyright Act, in several respects.”
During the “Satellite Video 101” hearing chaired by Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR), several members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee asked witnesses about what they should consider if the act were to be rewritten or reauthorized since it contains provisions that expire in 2014.
Witness R. Stanton Dodge recommended that with respect to the renewal of STELA, Subcommittee members should consider giving consumers the right to choose the local television stations they want to purchase. Dodge, who serves as DISH’s executive vice president and general counsel, said that one of the anachronisms in the law is the orphan county issue. Orphan counties are areas where cable providers give consumers access to in-state television stations although the market the consumers reside is not in the state where the consumers live. He said that it occurs in 40 states today.
“The orphan county issue is an anachronism of the whole system that needs to be worked out,” he said. “It may very well be that folks in southwestern Colorado prefer watching Albuquerque stations because they buy their Chevys in Albuquerque and they want to see those advertisements. But I think we should give them the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.”
Eloise Gore, the only witness representing a federal agency at the hearing, said that while the orphan county issue is a small problem, it is a big problem for the consumers affected by the issue with the respect to the number complaints filed.
The Associate Bureau Chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau said that in 2012, there were about 60-70 complaints received about the local packages that are accessible to them. Gore also said that the calls primarily come from consumers in rural areas who reside in an orphan county who want their state’s local television stations.
While Gore made it clear that she would not provide policy recommendations, she did agree that giving consumers the right to choose stations should be accounted for in STELA.
Witness Michael O’Leary, Motion Picture Association of America’s Global Policy and External Affairs senior executive vice president, agreed that STELA should address consumers’ wants.
“Consumers want everything right now,” O’Leary said. “The good news is that they’re living in an era where you’ve got a better chance at getting everything than you did before. If you look at the television as it existed when we were children and you look at the television our children are growing up with, those are vastly different platforms, frankly, and in the future it’s going to be even more. The question underlying the entire discussion today is what is the proper role of the in facilitating that happening.”
He added that compulsory licenses and “woefully outdated” provisions in STELA be examined, too.
In addition to prioritizing consumer interests, witnesses Jane Mago, National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president and legal and regulatory affairs general counsel, and Jennifer Kieley, Association of Public Television Stations, advised the Subcommittee to place its focus on local needs as well.
Both witnesses shared the notion that although local and public channels are free to consumers, they are costly to provide, so making sure there is enough revenue to continue broadcasting is important to consider.
With the increasing popularity of public television station programming like “Downton Abbey,” Kieley hopes that the unique role public television plays nowadays is addressed when the Subcommittee members decide to review STELA.
She repeatedly emphasized that the issues currently under review in STELA “are complex issues that intertwine” because they intersect with the laws of the Communication Act and copyright.
Mago, Dodge and O’Leary said agreed that given STELA’s complex nature, its provisions should be scrutinized holistically.