AT&T’s Misleading STELAR Campaign Does a Disservice

The below op-ed by NAB President and CEO Gordon H. Smith appeared in Broadcasting & Cable September 23.

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress passed a bill representing a temporary fix to copyright law to boost competition to the cable industry. The bill — now known as STELAR — provided for a “distant signal license” that allowed fledgling satellite TV companies to deliver ABC, CBS and NBC programming to households unserved by local TV stations.

This legislation was never intended to be permanent — indeed, Congress set the bill to sunset after five years. However, because of lagging efforts by the satellite industry to carry local TV stations in all 210 television markets, Congress has continued to renew the distant signal license.

Now, with the latest iteration of this bill set to expire at the end of the year, AT&T-owned DirecTV has launched a misleading on-air campaign warning viewers they are “at risk of losing your TV channels” unless the legislation is renewed by Congress. Viewers, including those in unaffected areas such as the Washington, D.C., market, have reported turning on their DirecTV systems and being “auto-tuned” to a screen directing them to contact Congress in support of STELAR’s renewal.

These scare-tactic messages appearing on the TV screens of DirecTV customers are disingenuous at best and deceptive at worst. The truth is there is no reason for AT&T and DirecTV to grossly mislead most of its subscribers. That’s because the vast majority of DirecTV customers face no impact whatsoever from STELAR’s expiration.

Today, the number of locally unserved households for the five major television networks has dropped to fewer than 500,000 (or less than 0.5% of total U.S. households). Indeed, the U.S. Copyright Office — the expert federal agency on copyright issues — supports expiration of STELAR, and rightly believes that a free-market solution will protect the dwindling number of unserved DirecTV homes from losing access to broadcast programming.

For most of these relatively few remaining households, DirecTV can easily ensure that its viewers won’t lose access to broadcast network programming when STELAR expires. They can simply deliver on their decade-old pledge to carry all local TV stations in every television market. Today, that pledge remains unfulfilled in 12 U.S. TV markets where it refuses to invest in carriage of local TV stations. There is no longer any technical justification for this anti-consumer decision to deprive viewers of local news, weather and emergency information.

It is long past time for DirecTV to fulfill its decade-old promise and provide every subscriber with their local TV station signals. That way, DirecTV viewers from Maine to Montana, and from Kentucky to Texas, will be able to watch local TV station affiliates rather than piped-in New York and Los Angeles programming from thousands of miles away.

DirecTV is doing a serious disservice to both its customers and to Congress by running these misleading messages. We urge AT&T and DirecTV to reconsider airing alerts that only confuse their viewers, and to work with local broadcasters to ensure that all DirecTV customers receive their network programming from local TV affiliates.