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Greg Walden On STELAR Fight: 'Local Content at a Reasonable Price'.

With the change in leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives thanks to the 2018 elections, Greg Walden of Oregon is now the Republican Leader, rather than the Chairman, of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

That's not to say Walden's influence and sway on big-ticket issues like the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELAR), which is under strict scrutiny this week on Capitol Hill. Walden shared his views Tuesday on STELAR, as did the current House E&C Chairman, at a Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing on "STELAR Review" and how consumers should be "protected."

For Walden and other House members, "Protecting Consumers in an Evolving Media Marketplace" was the theme of the STELAR hearing, convened by House E&C Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone and Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Doyle — two outspoken foes of the Pai Commission and of Trump administration efforts including the removal of Title II classification for broadband, a.k.a. "net neutrality."

For Walden, the media marketplace review focused on one key thing -- whether or not the Satellite Home Viewer Act -- first passed when Ronald Reagan was President -- works for television viewers today.

"Thirty years ago, Congress sought to ensure that rural Americans, unable to receive an over-the-air broadcast signal, would still be able to view content via satellite services," Walden said. "For a large rural district like mine in Oregon -- which would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to Ohio if you laid it over the East Coast -- this was critical."

As Walden explained, Congress would go on to bless the budding satellite industry with a discounted Copyright license as an alternative to individually negotiating with each Copyright holder. While the license to provide local-into-local signal is now a permanent fixture, the "distant network signal" license is still reviewed every five years, along with other elements that accompany the extension, he said.

"As I emphasized when we did this five years ago during my time as subcommittee chairman, this must be a transparent process driven by reliable data," he said. "I am encouraged that the FCC last year commenced its Quadrennial Review of the media landscape. I'm also appreciative of the work by the Government Accountability Office in drafting its report that Congress directed describing stakeholders' views on phasing out the statutory license."

With that, Walden made it clear what the task of the Federal government should be on STELAR.

"Our goal should certainly be that everyone in this country has access to local content at a reasonable price," he said.

This suggests that, contrary to what groups such as the ATVA are fighting against, a DirecTV subscriber in Bowling Green, Ky., should be able to watch network programming from the closest affiliate — rather than WCBS-2, WNBC-4, WNYW-5 and WABC-7 from New York.

Walden is perhaps the perfect legislator to talk about broadcast media. After all, he once owned radio stations.

"You all have heard me discuss my background in broadcasting, and hopefully understand my priority that local content is preserved," he said. "We must have a model that revolves around this concept because although we might like watching the latest show on Netflix , it's essential that we have access to our local news, sports, weather and emergency information.Whether it is the wildfires and smoke warnings in the summer months in Oregon, or tornados, traffic accidents, and emergency situations, local content provides vitally important, trustworthy, and timely information to communities across the country."

That content cannot be viewed by DirecTV consumers in the following markets:

Alpena, Michigan

Bowling Green, Kentucky

Casper-Riverton, Wyoming

Cheyenne, Wyoming/Scottsbluff, Nebraska

Grand Junction, Colorado

Helena, Montana

North Platte, Nebraska

Ottumwa, Iowa/Kirksville, Missouri

Presque Isle, Maine

San Angelo, Texas

Victoria, Texas

Glendive, Montana

Walden made no direct suggestions or declarations on STELAR during his opening remarks. But, he did address the retrans fee fights that have led to consumers being the victims of "blackouts" when contracts lapse without any resolution for weeks or months to come.

"Local broadcasters expend tremendous resources serving their communities, and they deserve a level playing field," Walden said. "Through their FCC licenses, broadcasters serve as trustees of the public's airwaves, and must serve the public interest. That means they serve the needs and interests of their local communities. We must be careful not to hamstring them with negotiating restrictions not justified by market conditions."

Most importantly, he added, "consumers won't tolerate gaps in coverage, blackouts, and arbitrage opportunities that drive up prices and reduce the quality of local content. The bottom line is that Congress must consider whether a distant network signal license extension is a bridge — or a blockade — to delivering local coverage. I am committed to ensuring that all rural communities both in Oregon, and across the United States, continue to receive robust, effective, and affordable local broadcast coverage. Period."

'HOW BEST TO PUT CONSUMERS FIRST'

Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.)

In his opening remarks, House E&C Chairman Pallone noted that the hearing "may appear to be focused on a few discreet, arcane provisions of communications and copyright law, but it is fundamentally about consumers getting access to broadcast programming, whether they are in urban or rural areas."

As such, he said, "We should continue to focus on the timeless values that inform our media policy--localism, diversity and competition."

Describing STELAR, Pallone noted, "Some so-called 'unserved' subscribers can't receive their local stations from an antenna because they are too far away, or they are in a media market that doesn't have a station affiliated with one or more of the 'big four' networks. These consumers must be protected."

At the same time, they said, "satellite television providers are not required to carry local broadcast networks. As a result, some subscribers receive out of market network programming from their satellite provider instead of local stations."

As the Committee begins its examination of STELAR, Pallone said it's important "that we ask the ultimate question of how best to put consumers first."

The responses could be varied from Members on both sides of the aisle.

Pallone made it clear that, in his view, the Members should focus the Subcommittee's analysis on the consumers.

Five questions were presented by Pallone:

What are the implications if STELAR is not reauthorized and how will the over 800,000 consumers currently receiving distant signals be impacted?

What is the path that gives consumers the ability to access--at prices they can afford--the television content they want?

How do we ensure that consumers are not rendered pawns in high-stakes negotiations between video distribution companies and big broadcaster station groups?

How can we ensure that broadcast stations remain vibrant outlets of expression and trusted sources of information for their local communities, while also promoting competition to the benefit of consumers?

How can we encourage the carrying of local programming at reasonable rates and that local programming reflects a diversity of views?

Pallone also had something to say about STELAR.

"Congress also created the good faith negotiation rules that underlie the agreements that allow consumers to watch over-the-air broadcast stations as part of their cable and satellite TV packages," he said. "As media consolidation has grown, so too have the fights over these programming agreements … and unfortunately consumers have been caught in the middle. The number of station blackouts has been increasing as have the rates consumers pay. Smaller telecommunications companies are facing a choice of whether to continue as cable operators or simply become broadband providers."

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Publication:Radio and Television Business Report (RBR+TVBR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jun 4, 2019
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