Yesterday, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on the re-authorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELAR). The Act, along with its predecessor forms, have been in existence since 1988 and is intended to guarantee that consumers with satellite access to television programming has access to programming provided by over-the-air broadcast stations.
Consumers, due to terrain or distance, may have problems receiving signals from over-the-air broadcast stations. Some consumers may choose satellite television as their medium for obtaining programming provided by these stations. Depending on the agreements entered into to carry or re-transmit signals from a broadcast station, there is a chance that the consumer may not receive programming from broadcast stations within her local area.
This possibility of not receiving local broadcast station signals lies at the heart of the localism problem, where consumers may be denied information on what’s happening in their local communities and instead, in return for receiving content from a broadcast network outside of their locality, they would only have access to “local” content from another community, content that would be useless to them.
Critics of the Act want to see STELAR expire on 31 December and not be re-authorized. Critics claim that not only are local consumers of satellite services being denied local broadcast content as a result of the agreements their satellite services enter into with outside area “local” broadcasters, but they are also bearing the burden of lost advertisement revenues where their local content is being replaced by the content of outside area broadcasters. In addition, local broadcasters incur another dent in revenues where satellite companies are opting to lower re-transmission fees to outside broadcasters versus local broadcasters.
But if a consumer can’t receive signals from their local broadcaster due to terrain or distance, why should they be denied access to content from outside area broadcasters via satellite? The argument that these consumers are being denied access to information about community events sounds laudable on the surface, but there are alternatives available that can supplement the lack of local television news that covers community events.
For example, more and more local stations are streaming news content online. They are also supplementing their video content with texts and graphics. They are noticeably expressing their journalistic chops by providing digital print and video.
Local programmers could also take advantage of this supposed demand by offering this local content online via their websites on a paid basis, assessing a fee commensurate with that of the local newspaper. People do that today when they purchase Netflix, HBO Go, etc., so why not with local television content?
As for emergency alerts and other emergency information, there are mobile apps available that can keep consumers informed about urgent events.
Congress, when contemplating extension of STELAR, should keep in mind that at the core the issue is about competitive provision of content in another information market. Local television broadcasters must find innovative ways of getting their content in front of their local consumers. Just being a part of the community is not enough for local broadcasters.
Congress should also bear in mind that satellite companies should be expected to meet local needs for network programming by providing broadcast packaging at the lowest cost possible. This may mean creating packages that do not include programming from the local broadcaster because local broadcaster re-transmission fees are cost prohibitive.
If anything, extending STELAR puts the onus on local broadcasters to become more innovative on how they meet local community information needs.