Burdick makes case for localism at STELA hearing


US CongressIf there is one thing Congress must preserve when deciding whether or not to reauthorize STELA, said Schurz Communications’ Marci Burdick, it is the ability of local television broadcasters to serve the citizens who actually live in their coverage area. That means saying no to MVPD requests for distant signal importation.

Burdick, who serves as the Chair of the NAB Television Board, was s peaking before the House Communications Subcommittee.

She noted that here company owns and operates television stations, radio stations and cable systems, and is a member of both NAB and ACA. She said she has a unique vantage point when it comes to retransmission consent, approaching the issue from both sides of the negotiating table, and explained that the system is working.

However, in her opinion certain MVPDs are trying to use stalled retrans negotiations as an excuse to import distant signals into markets experiencing an impasse. Inserting such a provision into STELA would be nothing more than the grant of a huge advantage to MVPDs in retrans negotiations.

And what it fails to take into account is the need for local broadcast by citizens. She noted that it does no good to citizens in Bend OR to gets news, weather and sports for Los Angeles.

More to the point, citizens need access to local television in times of emergency, as Schurz knows only too well, as the operator of stations in tornado territory.

She urged passage of a clean reauthorization that does not tip the scales in the favor of MVPDs and preserves local service for the citizens who need it.

Here is Burdick’s full testimony as prepared for delivery before the Subcommittee:

Good morning, Chairman Walden, Ranking Member Eshoo, and members of this Subcommittee. My name is Marci Burdick, and I am the Senior Vice President of Schurz Communications where I oversee eight television stations, three cable companies and 13 radio stations. I am also the Television Board Chair for the NAB, on whose behalf I testify today.

Local broadcast television remains unique because it is free, it is local and it is always on – even when other forms of communication may fail. Television broadcasters are the most watched media for high quality entertainment, sporting events, local news, emergency weather warnings and disaster coverage.

Schurz has stations in tornado-prone places like Wichita, Kansas, and Springfield, Missouri. I can tell you from my own personal experience, our viewers rely on us to stay informed during times of weather emergencies, not unlike the terrible storms we’ve seen this year.

With that backdrop, thank you for the opportunity to be here today to discuss the reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, or STELA. As broadcasters, we approach this debate asking a simple question: Is satellite’s distant signal compulsory license still in the public interest?

We know the universe of distant signals is shrinking and more and more viewers are receiving their local programming through satellite. Today DISH provides local-into-local service in all 210 television markets, and DirecTV in 197 markets. To justify the extension of this law, however, we need more specific information. For instance, how many subscribers rely on the distant signal? How many subscribers are “grandfathered” but also receive local-into-local service? What is the number of subscribers that receive the distant signal only for use in a boat or RV? Unfortunately, this information resides only in the hands of Dish and DirecTV. By digging into these facts, we can have an honest debate about whether this law is still needed.
At a minimum, NAB asks this Committee to embrace a clean reauthorization that does not include unrelated and highly controversial provisions that undermine the ability of broadcasters to provide high quality and locally-focused content. For example, some would like to use the STELA reauthorization to make drastic changes to a free marketplace negotiation called retransmission consent. I believe such changes would harm consumers.

I’ve been with Schurz Communications for 25 years and I come to this hearing with a unique perspective on the video marketplace. My company is a member of both NAB and ACA – we are a broadcaster and a cable operator. I can tell you that from our vantage point, as a small company that has been on both sides of the retransmission consent negotiating table, the current system works.

So I ask this Subcommittee – if it isn’t broken, why fix it? The retransmission consent system in place today has a success rate of 99%. Only in Washington, DC, could something that works 99% of the time, providing for thousands of deals every year, be called “broken.” This success rate trumps the effectiveness of the best medicines, the free throw percentage of the most accurate basketball player, and the approval ratings of the Dalai Lama and the Pope; yet no one would ever doubt whether those are effective.

The false fixes being suggested by my friends in the cable and satellite industry not only would harm consumers, but would do nothing to improve on the system that we have today. In fact, the effect would be just the opposite.

One proposal would allow the importation of distant, out-of-market signals in the event of a contractual impasse. In the real world, that means Congress would negate existing contracts between the broadcast networks, like ABC, and their local affiliates, like KOHD in Bend, Oregon or KGO in the Bay Area. If Congress were to allow distant signals to come into local markets, you will have gutted my affiliation contract, while leaving viewers in Bend, Oregon or the Bay Area to receive perhaps Los Angeles news and sports.

Additionally, by allowing distant signal importation, Congress would be placing its thumb on the bargaining scales by fundamentally skewing the negotiating leverage of the parties. The resulting effect would be MORE contractual impasses, not less. With fewer viewers and less advertising dollars, the localism television broadcasters provide would be compromised. This would ultimately leave your viewers with less local community programming; your local businesses with fewer places to reach local customers through TV advertising; and politicians with no effective medium to reach their constituents. None of this is good for the consumer.

In conclusion, as television broadcasters, we aren’t coming to Congress asking for a leg up in our negotiations, or for changes to a law to benefit one side or another. We will fight our own fights, we want to make our own deals – we only ask that Congress not tip the scales in favor of any one industry.

I thank you for inviting me here today, and I look forward to your questions.