importation of distant signals

July is an important month for regulatory filings – even though it is one of those months with no FCC submissions tied to any license renewal dates. Instead, quarterly obligations arise this month, the most important of which will have an impact in the ongoing license renewal cycle that began in June (see last month’s update on regulatory dates, here).  Even though there are no renewal filing deadlines this month, radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and DC must continue their on-air post-filing announcements on the 1st and 16th of the month.  On these same days, pre-filing announcements must be run by radio stations in North and South Carolina, who file their renewals by August 1.  Stations in Florida and Puerto Rico, who file on October 1, should be prepared to start their pre-filing announcements on August 1.  See our article here on pre-filing announcements.

Perhaps the most important date this month is July 10, when all full power AM, FM, Class A TV and full power TV stations must place their quarterly issues/programs lists in their online public inspection files.  The issues/programs list should include details of important issues affecting a station’s community, and the station’s programming aired during April, May, and June that addressed those issues.  The list should include the time, date, duration and title of each program, along with a brief description of each program and how that program relates to a relevant community issue.  We have written many times about the importance of these lists and the fact that the FCC will likely be reviewing online public files for their existence and completeness during the license renewal cycle – and imposing fines on stations that do not have a complete set of these lists for the entire license renewal period (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here).  So be sure to get these important documents – the only official documents that the FCC requires to show how a station has met its overall obligation to serve the public interest – into your online public file by July 10. 
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On Wednesday, Congress passed the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA), which extends the blanket copyright license allowing satellite television providers to deliver distant signals to "unserved" viewers who are unable to receive a signal from their local network affiliate.  The Act extends that blanket license for five more years until December 31, 2014.  Enactment of this bill (assuming President Obama signs it into law) will essentially extend the current blanket license scheme — which previously expired on December 31, 2009, and which had been hastily extended temporarily a couple of times this year — that governs the importation of distant signals.  Although the Act did not tackle many of the issues that had been raised and debated regarding satellite television and the rebroadcast of local station over the past six months, the final bill does allow Dish Network to get back into the business of rebroadcasting distant signals directly, instead of through a third party.  In exchange for this change in the law, Dish Network has committed to delivering local television signals into the remaining dozen or so markets in which it doesn’t provide local-into-local service presently.  By virtue of this trade, Dish will likely become the first satellite television provider to offer local TV stations via satellite in all 210 markets in the country.

One subtle, but potentially very significant change for broadcast stations is the fact that the rule changes the definition of what constitutes an "unserved household".  Today, the law defines an unserved household (i.e., one that would be entitled to the importation of a distant signal) as:  "…a household that cannot receive, through the use of a conventional, stationary, outdoor rooftop receiving antenna, an over-the-air signal of a primary network station affiliated with that network…"  47 USC 119(d)(10)(A).  Now, however, the STELA Act changes that definition to simply state that an unserved household is one that:  "…cannot receive, through the use of an antenna, an over-the-air signal…"  Changing the definition to reception simply by "an antenna" instead of a "conventional, station, outdoor rooftop receiving antenna" would appear to mean that Congress has just extended the definition of unserved households to include those that cannot receive an adequate signal using rabbit ear antennas, not one that can’t receive a signal using a 30-foot, fixed, outdoor antenna.  This could lead to a significant change in the provision of distant signals and potentially eat away at a station’s protected service area.  How exactly this plays out and whether or not it allows the satellite providers to bring distant signals to households previously considered "served" remains to be seen. 


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