Should We Have Must Carry Mandates for Satellite TV?

by on February 24, 2009 · 22 comments

There was a hearing today in the House Energy and Commerce Committee on “Reauthorization of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act,” which got into the sticky of issue of whether must carry mandates should be applied to satellite television (DBS) operators. My boss, Ken Ferree, president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, testified in opposition to that notion. Here’s what he had to say about proposals that would require satellite operators to carry local broadcast TV stations from even the smallest markets:

Because Congress cannot repeal the laws of physics, there are only two ways in which a satellite company might comply with such a mandate: 1) it may add capacity (i.e., launch new satellites and build associated ground equipment), or 2) it may convert capacity currently used for other purposes to local television carriage in the most sparsely populated parts of the country. Neither approach makes economic sense. That is, these proposals, if they were to become law, would impose considerable costs on satellite operators while generating no appreciable revenue.

Building and launching new satellites in order to carry local television stations in the smallest markets would of course cost hundreds of millions of dollars, while the return on such an investment, without any doubt, would be negligible. On the other hand, satellite television operators make capacity decisions in order to maximize net revenue. If they are required to delete program services that are profitable to make room for those that are less so, they necessarily lose in the transaction. Indeed, if delivering local television signals in the smallest markets made sound business sense, the satellite companies would be doing so already and no legal mandate would be necessary.

Moreover, and fatally for any such proposal, requiring DBS companies to provide local signals (effectively adopting a satellite must-carry requirement) would almost certainly be unconstitutional. Cable must-carry was upheld by the Supreme Court by a bare majority only because there was a voluminous record suggesting that weaker broadcast stations would fail absent a cable must-carry requirement, thus depriving over-the-air viewers of additional video programming choices. There is no similar record, nor any reason to believe that one might be assembled, suggesting that the same would hold true absent some enhanced satellite carriage rule.

Carriage requirements impose significant burdens on the commercial and First Amendment rights of those bound by them. In the current environment, imposing enhanced carriage mandates on DBS operators would be unwarranted, economically indefensible, and unconstitutional.

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