By Russ and Tiña De Maris
We’ve received plenty of feedback on this story – suggesting we may have the story wrong. We’ll dig deeper and and square it away. In any case, we’ll ensure you get the right information, even if it involves eating a little crow. —RD
Are you an RVer who depends on satellite TV? You may have already heard from your satellite provider that there are big changes in the works. Effective June 1, satellite TV companies won’t be providing local network channels like ABC, CBS, NBC, CW and FOX, when the user is away from their home area. What’s up with that? It’s all because of a thing called STELAR.
STELAR is an act under U.S. law, standing for Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization. Under current law, TV broadcasters like ABC need to provide their signals, free of charge, to people using an antenna. That’s good, provided you can actually get the signal. For folks far away from a broadcast station, or in an area where signals are broken up by things like mountains, getting that signal can be impossible. And then there are RVers, who may “live” in Iowa, but head to Arizona for the winter. Getting their “home” local news is fine when in Iowa, but don’t go too far down the interstate or the signal is gone.
Enter satellite dish companies. For years users were able to “tune in” their home stations clear across the country via their satellite dish. To make the deal attractive to local broadcast systems, the satellite providers had to pay to get permission to rebroadcast those signals to you, their customer. It’s technically called “retransmission consent.” The STELAR act theoretically smoothed the way for satellite dish providers and local broadcasters to work out the details of these transactions, and permitted the whole thing to work. Trouble is, STELAR was never a permanent act, rather, it had to be re-approved by Congress every five years. The time for that reapproval came up in 2019. Congress couldn’t come to an agreement; STELAR croaked. Some satellite customers lost their “local” broadcast channels Jaunary 1; others, RVers and long-haul drivers for instance, will be losing them May 1 – unless something unusual happens.
If it weren’t for the COVID-19, the demise of STELAR might not be getting the “play” in the news that it is. But coop people up in their homes, settle a pandemic outside of their front door, and they need INFORMATION. There’s another group of satellite dish users who are also getting hit hard. These are “under-served” communities. If you live out in the middle-of-nowhere, there probably just isn’t any local broadcast station that you could tune into, even if you stuck a TV antenna way up above the barn. This group of folks had been included in STELAR – and like traveling folks such as RVers, they were “graced” with an additional six months of air time for local broadcasts. They, too, will see local signals go dark on June 1.
Enter a former Congressman from Virginia. Rick Boucher served from 1983 to 2011, and in his appointments served on committees directly involved with the STELAR act back in the day. Many of Boucher’s former constituents live in areas where local broadcast signals just can’t be had. It irks Boucher no end that now, in the middle of a public health crisis, information on what to do, and not do, will simply dry up when the satellite companies “flip the switch” in a couple of weeks.
Writing on rollcall.com, Boucher says, “By failing to renew provisions in the law that allow satellite TV companies like DirecTV to bring signals from TV stations outside of local markets into those places where a TV signal can’t penetrate, Congress ignored a basic rural need.” But Rick Boucher takes a broader view than most politicians. He widens the scope to others. “It’s not only those who live in the countryside who got the cold shoulder, but long-haul truckers and RV owners too. Their only access to network programming is through distant network signals.”
The die has been cast, and Congress didn’t renew STELAR when it could. But the coronavirus pandemic might just be something that could draw the attention of lawmakers now in Congress. Boucher suggests something that might be done: “Congress can and should give rural residents, truckers and RVers a break during the coronavirus pandemic and hold off on implementing the new law during this pivotal year,” he writes. “That won’t solve the problem Congress created, but it will give lawmakers time to reconsider their mistake, and in the meantime ensure that all Americans can continue to avoid TV blackouts and get the information they need during one of our nation’s most trying times.”
Translated? For those who feel something needs to be done, a letter, e-mail, or phone call to your representatives on Capitol Hill, if nothing else, will let them know someone out there will be affected when those local broadcast stations vanish from your satellite TV.