Some consumers in 12 of the tiniest rural television markets in the country are being denied access to local programming by some satellite TV providers. The neglect cannot be explained away by market failure or lack of technology. Instead, these underserved communities remain the collateral damage of an outdated 31-year-old loophole that Congress has failed to let expire.
When originally passed in 1988, the Satellite Home Viewer Act contained a provision allowing distant broadcast TV stations (often New York and L.A. channels) to be substituted into local television markets, or Designated Market Areas (DMAs) as they are called. Providing local content in certain remote areas was a technical and logistical challenge for the burgeoning home satellite industry in an era that predated the development of digital TV. Congress anticipated these issues would be resolved over time through technology innovation and gave the act a predetermined sunset date of 1994.
The loophole incentivizes the import of a distant signal into these 12 markets by replacing the typical system of free market negotiation for local content with a government rate setting for the distant signal. The result of this is a government set rate that is far below the market to offer New York or L.A. stations providing a disincentive to offer local content.
Due to a combination of lobbying, politics and sheer cronyism, the expiration deadline set by Congress has been extended a half dozen times to get us to where we are now 31 years later.
Any pre-existing problems created by technical logistics or market size faded away long ago as satellite TV became a major industry. Today DirecTV and DISH have a combined almost 30 million subscriber households and 30 percent of the paid television market. No doubt, the decision to carry local broadcast channels in local markets has further helped the satellite TV business flourish.
In fact, for almost the last decade DISH TV has been providing local channels in all 210 DMAs; there are no longer technical limitations in providing these viewers local television programming in underserved markets.
However still some DirecTV satellite viewers in the following cities can’t access local content: Alpena, Michigan; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Casper-Riverton,
Those 12 tiny DMAs — many of which have already been faced with the loss or reduction of local newspaper coverage — can’t get critical local information such as news, weather and emergency alerts through their satellite provider. Rural towns across the country also count on local television to sustain their sense of community and connectedness. Local businesses and advertisers count on local television to sustain downtowns and main streets.
Now that the technology is possible, these remote communities deserve the same access to local content as other communities. However, the satellite loophole allows DirecTV to continue to bring in a distant signal, most recently authorized by the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR) in 2014. Today, STELAR and this local market neglect by DirecTV only further contributes to the spread of news deserts in the Information Age. It is time to end this disparity, let the law sunset and close the loophole.
There is no remaining policy justification for the distant channel importation that disproportionately affects these 12 markets. Allowing STELAR to expire on December 31 of this year will level the playing field across the country and encourage the satellite industry to offer vital local TV programming in all local markets. Congress should do the right thing and simply let this law expire.