Yesterday, the FCC released four different items to implement the changes enacted by Congress in the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, better known as STELA. With one item addressing significantly viewed out-of-market stations, two items regarding signal prediction and measurements for the reception of DTV signals, and a Public Notice requesting comments and data for a report to Congress, the FCC has wrapped up several open issues regarding STELA. As we have written about previously, here and here (among others), in addition to extending the blanket copyright license allowing satellite television providers to deliver distant signals to "unserved" viewers unable to receive a signal from their local network affiliate, STELA raised a few additional issues that the FCC needed to address through various rule makings.  With yesterday’s flurry of activity, the FCC has now addressed those issues.

With the first item, the Commission modified the significantly viewed rules that allow for the importation of distant signals in certain circumstances.  The item clarifies that a satellite subscriber need only receive the local-into-local package as a precondition for that subscriber to receive a significantly viewed station, they don’t have to receive the specific local (i.e., in-market) affiliate of the same network as a precondition to receive a distant station affiliated with the same network.  The item further clarifies that STELA no longer requires that equivalent bandwidth be dedicated to in-market and significantly viewed stations, so much as there is an HD format requirement.  Accordingly, subscribers can only receive a significantly viewed HD signal, the satellite carrier must carry the HD signal of the local station affiliated with the same network.  In reaching its decision, the Commission was cognizant of the tension between the protection of localism and Congress’s intention of achieving closer parity between the rules for satellite TV providers and cable TV providers, and it worked to reach a balance between those two sometimes competing goals.  A copy of the Order is available here.

The next two items address the signal prediction and measurement rules, which guide determinations as to whether or not a particular location receives an adequate digital signal.  The reception of such a signal is the crux of the determination of whether a particular household is served or unserved, in which case it is eligible to receive distant signals.  Specifically, the Commission adopted a point-to-point predictive model for determining reception of an over-the-air DTV of a suitable strength at a particular location.  As proposed, the predictive model for digital signals is based on the current model used for predicting reception of analog signals.  And settling one of the main issues up for debate in this area, the Commission decided to retain the use of an outdoor receiving antenna as part of the predictive model, declining to change its rules to contemplate an indoor antenna. 

In addition, in the event that it becomes necessary to measure the field strength of a digital television signal, the Commission’s second item updates the Commission’s rules to address the measurement of DTV signals.  As an initial matter, the Commission clarified that only in-market signals are relevant for determining whether a station is unserved.  Consistent with the approach for the predictive model, the Commission decided that the rules would continue to rely on an outdoor signal intensity test to determine eligibility to receive distant network signals.  The Commission found that no reliable indoor testing method had been proposed and sided with the broadcasters as it found the methodology proposed by the satellite carriers for indoor testing to be flawed.  The Commission also refrained from making any special provisions for multicast signals in either the predictive model or the field strength measurements, reasoning that the reception of any particular program stream is equally available in the station’s signal.  A copy of the Order on the predictive reception model is available here, and the Order regarding the field strength measurements can be found here

Finally, in the last item in the bunch, the Commission released a Public Notice soliciting input regarding the reception and consumer use of signals from a community licensed to a different state than the subscriber.  STELA mandated that the FCC prepare a report to Congress by August 27, 2011, addressing the following issues:  1.) the number of households in a State that receive the signals of local broadcast stations assigned to a community of license located in a different State; 2.) to what extent do consumers in each local market have access to in-state broadcast programming over-the-air or from a multichannel video programming distributor; and 3.) are there alternatives to DMAs to define “local” markets that would provide consumers with more in-state broadcast programming.   Clearly, the answers to some of these questions could have a significant impact on local television stations, and interested parties should consider filing comments to provide the FCC with data on these issues.  The issue of access to "in-state" television stations, regardless of DMA boundaries, has come up in previous Congresses.  By this request for a Commission report, Congress could be fishing for a basis to change the rules governing the importation of signals and the determination of what signals a particular subscriber is eligible to receive.  Comments will be due 45 days after the item is published in the Federal Register, with Reply Comments due 30 days after that.  A copy of the Public Notice is available here