While Sen. Ted Stevens is still pushing his version, it’s looking less and less likely a bill will be passed this year–and that’s good news for TV broadcasters.
Passage of controversial communications reform legislation appears increasingly unlikely this year. And if the measure ends up on the towering junk heap of partially built law, TV broadcasters should count it as a blessing. The Senate version of the legislation has the potential for doing more harm than good for them.
The principal goal of the House and Senate bills is to ease entry of telephone companies into video distribution. That’s a good thing for broadcasters because the more telcos compete with cable, the more able broadcasters will be to wrest retransmission consent fees from both.
And the Senate bill contains language granting some protection for TV affiliates from the FCC’s stiff indecency fines.
But the rest of the Senate bill is problematic. It would permit unlicensed wireless devices in so-called “white spaces” between TV channels that broadcasters fear would create serious interference problems, and it would allow cable systems to degrade broadcasters’ DTV signals so that they could fit more channels on their systems.
Plus, the so-called broadcast flag provision fails to protect news and public affairs content. That’s a serious issue for TV stations.
The House passed its bill over the summer. The Senate bill has been hung up not only because of what it contains, but also because of what it doesn’t. Major Web companies are insisting on a so-called net neutrality provision that would bar telecommunications companies from discriminating among Web providers in pricing and service.
The Senate bill is a product of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and he has not yet given up on it. Just before Senate recessed last week, Stevens said he was hopeful he could push it through during the post-election lame-duck session in November.
To do that, Stevens would need 60 votes to limit floor debate—a tall order. But communications lobbyists say he could still pull it off. “Never underestimate Ted Stevens,” says one Hill observer.
Stevens could help his cause by stripping some of the controversial provisions affecting broadcasters. Doing so would not only improve its chances in the Senate, but would also grease the House-Senate conference in which the two versions of the legislation would be reconciled.
But so far Stevens has no desire to tamper with the language of his bill. He likes it just the way it is.
The outcome of congressional elections will also affect the legislation’s prospects. A Democratic takeover of either the House or Senate or both would be fatal to the measure. Democrats would want to start over next year with a telecom measure more to their liking.
All in all, you have to say the odds for the Senate bill are long and getting longer.
So while it’s true that you don’t want to underestimate Ted Stevens, you also don’t want to always bet on him either.