Under current law, broadcast stations like NBC, CBS, and ABC can grant or deny permission to a cable television operator to “retransmit” broadcast signals to cable customers, provided the cable operator pays the broadcast station. This is called “retransmission consent.” According to groups such as the American Television Alliance, reforms are needed to fix retransmission consent problems. Namely, they say that the current rules hinder small cable operators that serve rural markets to offer broadcast signals from neighboring television markets, that these cable operators have to go into "blackout" during contract negotiation, and that the high price for broadcasting signals results in increased costs for consumers and keeps small companies from being able to compete.
The debate over this relationship between local broadcasters and the pay-for-television industry has been grafted into a reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (known as STELA), which addresses the relationship between broadcasting and cable companies. Without reauthorization of the Act before the end of 2014, a number of rural consumers will be left without access to programming from distant broadcast signals provided by their pay-for-television providers. But the current debate is not just over retransmitting broadcast station signals; it also revolves around the need to reform regulations governing cable contracts with broadcasters, video programming and distribution markets, and Internet-based subscription services.
Both the House and Senate have put forth versions of a STELA Reauthorization Act. One House version - H.R.4572 – Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), would both extend the current legislation and also attempt to reform certain FCC rules, such as those that allow blackouts during contract negotiations. Alternatively, both the Senate version, S. 2454 - Satellite Television Access Reauthorization Act of 2014, and a separate House bill, H.R. 5036 - Satellite Television Access Reauthorization Act of 2014, are considered a “clean” versions because they extend the existing legislation but do include additional revisions. Over the September campaigning recess, a number of conservative lawmakers began calling for a "local choice" version that would allow consumers to choose whether or not they pay for broadcast stations separately, such as the bipartisan "Local Choice Act," co-sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV).
Since Congress must act before the end of November 2014, lawmakers will likely pass a clean extender bill to meet the deadline during the lame-duck session and leave further negotiations on reform to the next Congress. Still, depending on what passes at the end of 2014, many of the following bills submitted by the 113th might be repackaged into a comprehensive reform bill in 2015:
- H.R.4572 – Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR): would both extend the current STELA Act that provides satellite television carriers with the necessary ability to retransmit distant broadcast television programming to homes that are otherwise unable to receive local signal over-the-air; as well as end a number of FCC rules, including those that allow blackouts during contract negotiations. (Passed the House 7/22/2104, referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation 07/29/2014)
S. 2454 - Satellite Television Access Reauthorization Act of 2014, sponosred by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT): would extend the current STELA Act that provides satellite television carriers with the necessary ability to retransmit distant broadcast television programming to homes. (Placed on Senate calendar 6/26/2014)
H.R. 5036 - Satellite Television Access Reauthorization Act of 2014, sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC): would extend the current STELA Act that provides satellite television carriers with the necessary ability to retransmit distant broadcast television programming to homes. (Placed on House calendar 7/22/2014)
- H.R. 3720 - Next Generation Television Marketplace Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA): would allow the FCC to change the retransmission consent rules to give the FCC the authority to keep local broadcast stations on the air even when there is a contract dispute, among other provisions. (Referred to House Judiciary, Energy, and Commerce Committees)
HR.3719 - Video Choice Act Of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA): would require the FCC to complete a rulemaking on determine whether blocking online content owned by or affiliated with a television broadcast station constitutes a failure to negotiate in good faith under communications laws addressing false, fraudulent, or unauthorized transmissions. (Referred to House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology 12/13/2013)
S. 1680 - Consumer Choice in Online Video Act, sponsored by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV): would prohibit broadcast television licensees or television networks from refusing to negotiate with online video providers, and would require local commercial television broadcast stations to negotiate for carriage of their content over an online distributor’s system. (Referred to Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation)
S. 912 - Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): would un-bundle cable channels, allowing cable customers to pick the channels they want. (Referred to Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation)
American Cable - Retransmission Consent: http://www.americancable.org/issues/page/Retransmission_Consent
Rep. Scalise Press Release: http://scalise.house.gov/press-release/scalise-reintroduces-legislation-modernize-television-laws
FCC: Telecommunications in Rural America: http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/telecommunications-service-rural-america
National Broadband Map -- http://www.broadbandmap.gov/number-of-providers