by Bob Barr
The world is changing, and in the “Internet Age” the pace of change is relentless. Examples abound of victims of such change.
Kodak — the company that less than a generation ago was the world leader in providing film for the ubiquitous 35mm cameras around the necks of tourists from San Francisco to Cairo — is a pale shadow of its former self. Landline telephone companies that for over a century provided the primary communications link for families through two world wars, the Great Depression and the advent of the Space Age, is today a virtual technology dinosaur.
The means by which virtually every American home receives television services is not immune from such change. The new kids on the block — streaming video services offered by Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Video, soon Disney, and many others — already are pulling serious numbers of customers from the established providers of paid TV services: Cable and satellite TV.
Instead of letting this expanding market thrive, Congress is instead considering renewing a 30-year-old, outdated and totally unnecessary law offering unfair advantage to satellite providers.
The initial legislative vehicle for this regulatory throwback was passed by Congress in 1988 as the Satellite Home Viewer Act (SHVA), and is now titled the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR). Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web had not even been formally developed and made available to individuals and companies around the globe for mass use. At the time, a perhaps credible argument could be made that then-upstart satellite TV service providers needed a degree of help in competing against then well-entrenched cable providers.
In response, Congress passed legislation giving new satellite TV companies significantly discounted compulsory copyright licenses, enabling them to compete with the then-much larger cable providers.
Since its passage, this law has been reauthorized every five years, each time raising more and more questions about whether satellite companies that since had grown into industry giants still need the assistance. Now, three decades since the feds gave satellite TV a significant financial boost to compete with cable TV, STELAR is poised to continue that unlevel playing field. Satellite TV providers, especially giants DirecTV and Dish TV, now are multi-billion-dollar, profit-making enterprises in direct competition with cable providers licensed to operate in designated markets across the country.
A very real example of the problem created by STELAR’s benefit to satellite TV providers is that the law permits those companies to more cheaply import distant signals into local areas, instead of providing access to local broadcast affiliates. Lost in this scenario is local news programming that serves to keep citizens informed about municipal, regional and state governmental activities; even local weather reporting is unavailable to TV viewers in such areas. Bringing in distant signals instead of the local broadcast deprives those citizens of these important benefits.
Free-market advocates in the dozen markets across the country where satellite is allowed to import distant signals rather than provide local television, are urging Congress to let the outdated, unnecessary, and demonstrably unfair STELAR Act expire. But in Washington, D.C., where the strongest force in the universe remains the force of the status quo, any attempt to end an existing program, even one that no longer serves a useful purpose, is no easy task.
Reauthorization of STELAR would represent blatant crony capitalism — providing increased profits to the satellite TV providers, and resources with which to compete against the growing threat from streaming TV service providers; money and resources not available to cable companies.
Congress has a perfect opportunity to prove itself true to American free-market principles by simply allowing STELAR to gracefully expire; which, by the way, was the original intent for such legislation three decades ago.
• Bob Barr is a former Republican U.S. representative from Georgia.
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