Congressional staffs stuck on satcast plan

SBCA claims bill offers consumers little relief

WASHINGTON — Last-minute snags have delayed a final agreement on a bill that would allow satcasters to offer local broadcast channels, but congressional staffers said they are optimistic that a deal will be signed by the end of this week.

Not everyone is feeling as positive. The Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Assn. issued a statement Monday warning that the bill is headed in the wrong direction.

The SBCA claims that the draft legislation offers consumers little relief and fails to provide competition to cable. Chief among the SBCA’s concerns is a proposal to require satcasters to negotiate terms with broadcasters before they launch local signals.

Broadcasters insisted Monday that negotiations could be wrapped up in less than a month. But satcasters worry the talks could drag on, leading to long delays in the launch of their new services.

Pressure is mounting on the House and Senate staffers, who gathered around a negotiation table Monday. Not only have they been directed by congressional leaders to reach an agreement, the White House has signaled its desire for a satcasting bill before the current congressional session ends Dec. 31.

“We are at loggerheads again,” said a spokesman for House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). “The staff has reached a point where the members (of Congress) need to step in.”

Among the troublesome issues is a proposal that would create a government-guaranteed loan for satellite service that would provide local broadcast channels for direct broadcast service subscribers who live in small markets.

Staffers are busy trying to write the provision in a way that will not require the Congressional Budget Office to score the loan as a cost to taxpayers. Under current budget rules, if the CBO determines that the loan will cost taxpayers, then the bill must provide some source of revenue to pay for the expense or propose cuts in order to make up for the expense.

The other major problem is a proposal to determine which DBS subscribers will qualify for their local broadcast service. The complicated issues revolves around a proposal to require the FCC to determine which DBS subscribers should be counted as part of a station’s local market and which viewers should be counted as living outside the market. Subscribers who live outside the market will be eligible to receive signals from distant markets in order to ensure that they have access to network programming.

Broadcasters want the bill to limit any audience losses they might suffer because of the new language to less than 3%. But FCC staffers told the negotiators it is virtually impossible to make such a guarantee.

Sources said staffers agreed on other outstanding issues, including terms that will allow DBS companies to retransmit broadcasters’ local signals. EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen had asked Congress to write legislation that would guarantee him the same rates for the rights to broadcast channels that cable pays.

Sources said the bill requires broadcasters to negotiate in good faith with Ergen, but there is no requirement that DBS companies get the same rates as cable.

Staffers continued to meet Monday.