“Hey, STELA! STELA!”
Imagine the surprise to Capitol Hill conservatives when they heard one of their stalwarts, Sen. John R. Thune (R.-S.D) calling out for a radical overhaul of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act—not Marlon Brando.
Congress passed STELA, and its legacy acts going back to the 1980s, as enabling amendments to the Communications Act of 1934, to allow cable and satellite television services to carry local broadcast TV stations without having to negotiate rights or pay a fee.
The intent was to keep rural Americans from becoming more isolated and what it became is the backbone of basic cable. It is the rural dimension that drives groups like the National Farmers Union to support keeping things that way they are now.
As the bill moves towards a floor vote, people are watching how NFU handles their relationship with Thune—a man, who has received so many Golden Triangle awards, their highest honor, from NFU that they might have to retire the belt.
The overhaul supported by Thune, who is the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, would break up this arrangement, by creating a healthcare exchange-like experience for the viewer, who would have to pick which stations he wanted and pay for them individually. From the fees collected, the Pay-TV companies would pass them through to the local TV stations.
Savvy folks that they are, the Pay-TV companies are hailing this innovation as a victory for consumers.
Apparently, unbeknownst to the rest of us, “consumers” have been clamoring for the right to pay for TV stations that are now free. Throw in, too, that the local TV stations are not looking for new fees, they are happy to keep things as they are.
A simple or clean reauthorization of STELA passed the GOP-controlled House July 22 by a voice vote and a companion bill, S. 2454, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D.-Vt.), which closely tracked the language and spirit of the House bill seemed to be on the glide path for passage. It was reported out of committee June 10.
What has conservatives scratching their heads about Thune is that in less than five months, he could very well be the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in less than five months—so why the rush to partner with the retiring chairman Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV?
The Senate Democratic Press Office released a July 16 statement that it attributed to both men that said they were working together to pass their STELA bill by the end of September.
One theory is that Rockefeller is pulling out the stops to help Sen. Mark L. Pryor (D.-Ark.), the chairman of the Communications Subcommittee.
In this narrative, Thune is just being a good guy to Rockefeller, who was always a good guy to him with Rockefeller really making the push.
Pryor is in a tough reelection race with Republican Rep. Thomas B. Cotton and Rockefeller’s move might convince the Pay-TV industry that the world is a better place with Pryor in the Senate—or even succeeding Rockefeller as chairman.
In this current election cycle, Pryor has received $53,000 from National Cable and Telecommunications Association affiliated sources and $65,650 from Comcast affiliated sources.
It could just be that the Pryor angle is just a way of rationalizing Thune’s break from type.
Aside from Thune’s involvement, what concerns conservatives is that in the last weeks before a potentially significant year for Republican gains, Democrats are about to throw a meaty bone to their friends in the media.
Of course, it goes without saying that consumers need to worry whenever the agent working on their behalf is the cable companies.