The definition of a two word phrase in the satellite reauthorization act that was recently passed by Congress may have repercussions for local broadcasters. That phrase is “unserved household” – and if DISH Network is able to get a definition it likes, it may open the door to the importation of distant broadcast signals.

The language of the new bill allows satellite services that provide local-into-local in all 210 Nielsen DMAs to import distant signals when similar over-the-air broadcast service is unavailable.

A concern about the new version of the authorization is a change in how the ability to receive an over-air signal is determined. Under the old method, a standard stationary rooftop antenna was the receiving tool used to make the determination. Under the new definition, it just says antenna.

The concern is that a subscriber could claim inability to receive a signal, while using a pair of rabbit ears in a basement rec room, a device which clearly wouldn’t have the same pulling power as a rooftop unit.

Why would a subscriber do this? Because a satellite MVPD might offer a discount for the programming of a certain network that is brought in from a distance, and is not subject to a local retransmission agreement.

According to analysis from law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, “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.”

The FCC is also looking at ways to better define an unserved area and/or home. At stake is the total population reach of local broad stations – broadcasters want as many homes to serve as possible; satcasters would prefer bringing in less costly programming.

RBR-TVBR observation: Television broadcasters will not want to arm-wrestle the satellite broadcasters when there is cold hard cash on the table – so we recommend a spirited preliminary arm-wrestling match over the two little words that may decide who has the upper hand if a cash match comes to pass.