After a nearly six-month blackout, viewers in Flint-Saginaw and Myrtle Beach‑Florence will once again be able to view their local television stations. Following many months of tough negotiations, my broadcast team at Howard Stirk Holdings was able to successfully conclude carriage agreements with pay TV giant AT&T over the weekend. The stations had been off the DirecTV satellite service since the beginning of June.
It is a relief to have this impasse behind us.
During the course of the protracted saga, I have warned the FCC that AT&T has unfairly used its outsized—and some say monopoly—power to wrestle below-market retransmission rates from much smaller broadcasters. Their behavior deprived the viewers of local TV, which we provide free-to-the-home. To add insult to injury, AT&T’s recalcitrance adversely impacted the diversity of programming local viewers are entitled to receive. As one of the few African American owners, we take our commitment to the public interest very seriously. Our programming and content has been designed to serve the needs of those communities—programming they receive no other place.
Following last week’s determination by the FCC in the Deerfield Media proceeding that the use of a single negotiating agent by HSH and eight other TV facilities—a process which is permissible under FCC regulations —had impeded good faith negotiations, HSH engaged a new agent and was able to reach an agreement with AT&T. While the agreement may not be perfect for either party, it nevertheless ends the blackout on DirecTV of my stations and allows viewers who were watching by satellite (the stations were always available free-over-the-air throughout this process) to see the important and local content these stations provide.
Importantly, during the blackout period Flint was still dealing with its catastrophic lead-in-the-water public health crisis, and in Myrtle Beach the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. HSH’s stations provided needed coverage of these and other important public interest issues. Insuring this vital information is available to the widest public possible is crucial and I am relieved the situation has been resolved.
We learned a few key lessons while all of this was unfolding. First, we learned that the regulatory market skews heavily in favor of the Pay TV industry. Unlike broadcasters, they face no limitations on their ability to reach additional subscribers via their video, broadband or OTT services, nor any restrictions on their acquisition of or affiliation with programming networks or content providers. Seventy percent of all TV households still subscribe to a traditional Pay TV service, and AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and seven other titans of the telecom industry, control a whopping 91.5 percent of the nationwide broadband market. Broadcasting, by contrast, is one of the most heavily regulated industries in our country.
We learned that it is unfair for American viewers to be held hostage to the extraordinary power that big media companies wield in the video market. While our impasse has ended, there remains a fundamental devaluation of free over-the-air broadcast television.
And we learned that Congress was wise in its original intent to mandate a sunset to STELAR. STELAR was passed 30 years ago to temporarily give start-up satellite television companies a significantly discounted copyright license to allow them to better compete against big cable monopolies. But today, AT&T is a $235 billion titan, no longer a start-up in need of government assistance. Their attempt to use the Deerfield Media proceeding as justification to extend STELAR is wrong. STELAR’s time has come and gone and it should expire as Congress originally intended.
Armstrong Williams is manager / sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the year. www.armstrongwilliams.com | www.howardstirkholdings.com. Follow on Twitter: @arightside