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STELA passed

The long-delayed extension of the law covering direct broadcast satellite retransmission of television stations became effective at the end of May. While being negotiated, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA) was seen as a possible vehicle for several major changes in the relationships between television stations and satellite carriers and other multichannel video program distributors such as cable and telecom services. But STELA delivers few sweeping changes, although certain television stations may find that the new law works some changes in their particular markets.

Changes for unserved households

STELA's primary purpose was to reauthorize the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act of 2004 (SHVERA), which allowed satellite operators to make use of a compulsory copyright license to transmit distant television signals to households that are “unserved,” i.e., households that cannot receive a good quality over-the-air signal from the local affiliate of a particular network. SHVERA's authorization technically expired Dec. 31, 2009, although it was extended on a stop-gap basis while STELA was finalized.

STELA extends the compulsory copyright license another five years, to Dec. 31, 2014. In the process, however, it also made changes to the definition of unserved households and otherwise made it easier for the satellite companies to import distant television signals into many markets.

One such change concerns the type of antenna used by the households in question. Under SHVERA, a household was classified as “unserved” only if it could not receive a local network signal through the use of a conventional, stationary, outdoor rooftop receiving antenna. STELA, however, provides that a household may be considered unserved if it cannot receive a signal using any antenna. Thus, if a household cannot receive a signal through an indoor antenna, it would not be required to mount a rooftop antenna before being eligible to receive a distant network signal.

STELA also gives households seeking to receive distant signals a choice in the method used to determine the adequacy of a local signal. And it provides that over-the-air service from stations located outside the market will no longer count in considering whether a station is unserved. These changes in the law are likely to increase the number of households able to receive distant signals.

On the other hand, STELA limits the availability of distant signals in circumstances where the satellite provider offers a “local-into-local” package that includes the affiliate of the network at issue. Unserved households lawfully receiving distant signals prior to STELA's enactment are generally grandfathered.

Digital broadcasting

STELA makes several changes recognizing the switch to digital broadcasting and the increase of “multicast” channels. In addition to technical changes addressing the differences between analog and digital signals, it extends protection from duplicating distant signals to multicast channels affiliated with television networks. Additionally, the new law requires satellite carriers, by 2011, to offer subscribers the HD signals of public broadcasting stations in local markets where the carrier provides other local stations in HD.

Harry C. Martin is a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.

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