The Price Point | Archaic STELAR Must Be Allowed To Sunset
Back in 1988 when gasoline cost 90 cents a gallon and satellite television was a nascent service, Congress created temporary legislation to help satellite pay TV services develop into full competitors to cable. To do that, the satellite companies would need access to network television signals for customers unable to use antennas.
Satellite technology at the time was crude, so carrying all local stations was not yet feasible. Instead, the legislation allowed the companies to offer a handful of stations to everyone. That meant people in San Angelo, Texas, might be watching stations in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles stations had no say in this but did receive a small copyright payment. No limit was put on what the satellite services could charge consumers in San Angelo to watch L.A. weather.
Fast forward to 2019. The law worked. AT&T/DirecTV is now the largest pay TV operator in the country, bigger than any cable system. Technology is no longer a barrier to putting local signals in every market, yet the legislation, now called STELAR, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (the name alone is reason to put it out of its misery), is still with us. This makes no sense.
Over the years the legislation has been twisted and turned, now including such things as providing service for RVs and commercial trucks, something easily addressed in separate legislation. There is also a meaningless requirement for MVPDs and television stations to negotiate “in good faith” during retransmission discussions.
All of this is a smokescreen. DirecTV and the other MPVDs want to use a STELAR renewal to add language taking away stations’ rights to remove their signals during negotiations. That would be more than a thumb on the scale. It would be the entire hand.
The effect on consumers is even worse. DirecTV viewers in San Angelo are still being forced to watch Los Angeles weather. No local tornado warnings, no local coverage of natural disasters, no local television emergency services for DirecTV subscribers. Hopefully a neighbor will call on the phone.
The problem is not limited to San Angelo. The latest Nielsen figures show more than 420,000 households in small markets around the country do not have local television service available from DirecTV. How many of those households are DirecTV subscribers is not reported. Why do this when technology is no longer an issue? Dish Network carries all 210 markets. Could the millions of dollars DirecTV saves each year possibly be a reason?
Even the federal bureaucracy believes STELAR needs to go. In 2008 and 2011 the United States Copyright Office recommended the legislation not be renewed. This year, Karyn A. Temple, register of copyrights and director of the United States Copyright Office, submitted a detailed recommendation to the House Judiciary Committee urging STELAR be allowed to sunset at the end of 2019.
Allowing STELAR to finally die a natural death at the end of this year means the free market system would return, bringing fairness along for good measure. The OTT cable light systems have done just fine adding local service without benefit of special treatment.
Sunsetting STELAR means DirecTV would no longer have the right to retransmit stations without their permission. It would then be a simple thing for DirecTV to provide local service to viewers in San Angelo and the other small markets that make up the disadvantaged households.
Hopefully Congress will allow STELAR to expire at the end of this year. It is the right thing to do.
This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.