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Retransmission Concerns Make FCC’s STELA Implementation a Mixed Bag for Broadcasters and Satellite Providers

Yesterday, a day in advance of the November 24th statutory deadline to adopt rules implementing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, the FCC released a flurry of STELA-related orders. STELA governs the satellite carriage of broadcast stations, and in particular, the importation of distant network stations, in local markets. Because STELA and its predecessor statutes lie at the nexus of communications and copyright law, they represent very complex and arcane matters that often leave even communications lawyers scratching their heads if they aren’t experienced in the area.

For those interested in the details of yesterday’s three Orders and the FCC’s request for additional comments, I recommend taking a look at our Client Advisory on the subject from earlier today. For the rest of the population, suffice it to say that the major impact of these orders for broadcasters is how they affect the ability of satellite operators to import a “significantly viewed” (“SV”) duplicating network signal into portions of a local market, thereby undercutting the local network affiliate’s ratings, ad revenue, and retransmission negotiations.

As detailed in the Client Advisory, of the FCC’s three Orders, one favors satellite operators by making it easier to import distant network stations into a market, while the other two favor broadcasters by limiting the proportion of satellite subscribers in a market that are eligible to sign up to receive a distant network station.

Of particular note is the FCC’s conclusion in one of the Orders that “because SV status generally applies to only some areas in a DMA and not throughout an entire DMA, we find it unlikely that an SV station could permanently substitute for a local in-market station, even in the provision of network programming to the market.” The FCC further stated that “because most viewers want to watch their local stations, we do not think that carriage of only SV stations would satisfy most subscribers for an extended time.”

That is a comforting conclusion for broadcasters, and probably an accurate one. However, it may be cold comfort for the local broadcaster in heated retransmission negotiations where the satellite operator threatens to import a duplicative network station into the market. Because of that, and despite the complexity of the law in this area, television station owners and satellite operators need to acquire a keen understanding of each other’s rights under STELA and the FCC’s related rules, or proceed at their own peril.