Congress is currently considering legislation titled “the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization” (STELAR), a bill designed to extend rights (granted to satellite companies by Congress almost 20 years ago) to retransmit local television channel content. I had the privilege of serving as Telecommunications Counsel to the late-Senator Conrad Burns, who, as Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Telecommunications, pushed the initial bill granting these rights through Congress. The policies that Chairman Burns and other key members of the House and Senate Commerce Committees sought to promote by granting these rights have been accomplished, and, paradoxically, the reauthorization of these rights through passage of STELAR serve now to frustrate the very policies originally intended by these visionary Members of Congress.
The initial congressional intent in granting the right to retransmit local content to satellite companies was to afford those companies the opportunity to compete with cable companies on a “level the playing field.” Prior the granting of these rights, the only way for Montana customers to have access to local programming was either through “over-the-air” broadcast service or through cable service, and, at that time, cable companies did not offer service to customers residing in the rural and remote areas of Montana.
In fact, when considering the bill in 1999, Chairman Burns pointed out that Montana had the highest penetration of satellite services in the U.S. at over 40%, which was largely due to the fact that cable service was not offered in most of the rural and remote communities in Montana. Chairman Burns went on to emphasize the critical importance of allowing satellite companies to retransmit local broadcast services to these communities by stating:
“The ability to receive local television signals is more than just not having access to local sports and entertainment programming. It’s critical for the way we receive our local news and our community information. Access to local signals is particularly critical where we are when we experience extreme weather conditions, ranging from severe floods to intense blizzards, not to [mention] when they need a little farm news out there…So, I think it’s pretty important.”
It was as true now as when Chairman Burns made these remarks over 20 years ago … so, what happened?
Satellite companies utilized those rights granted in 1999 and became extremely effective competitive alternatives to cable companies, particularly in urban and suburban markets in the United States; in fact, DirecTV became so profitable that it was acquired by AT&T in 2015, making AT&T the third largest telecommunications company on the planet. Meanwhile, in Glendive, Helena and the rural and remote areas of Montana, no local broadcast is available for those subscribing to DirectTV. Congress should recognize that the purpose of this law has been, in part, realized – that satellite has become an effective competitive alternative to cable and broadcast services in urban and suburban markets; however, Congress should also recognize that the free-market forces that were unleashed in urban and suburban markets did not find their way to most of the communities in Montana. Thus, at a minimum, Congress should conclude that consideration of STELAR is no longer warranted, and should, rather, focus upon addressing the problem that most communities in Montana face – that they have been left behind in the provision of a full-spectrum of television offerings that includes local broadcast programming.
In the present marketplace, satellite, broadcast, and cable companies should be allowed to negotiate on equal footing without legislation that unjustifiably advantages one sector at the expense of the others. Smaller communities like those across Montana, should no longer be forced to subscribe to out-of-market signals instead of local content because of this law.
If the subsidy is allowed to expire later this year, the denial of local content for many rural consumers is likely to end. Montana Sen. Jon Tester has initiated the effort to defeat the reauthorization of STELAR by co-authoring a bipartisan letter with Wyoming and Colorado senators to ask DirectTV to serve the underserved rural and remote areas denied local coverage because of this legislation. Likewise, Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have been outspoken opponents of legislation crafted to favor one big lobbying interest over another. I encourage these Montana Members of Congress to join with other Members of Congress who represent rural and remote communities to stand up to the big special interests and help consumers in a way that restores free markets and competition without government interference.
Brett Scott is a former general counsel for the late Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and was the Senator’s representative in the House-Senate Conference Committee on the 1996 Telecommunications bill. Scott also served as legal counsel for the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1997.