Moving to end more than a decade of disputes between cable television operators and the broadcasting and motion picture industry, the House approved legislation yesterday that would resolve the types of programming cable operators can offer their customers.
A carefully crafted compromise between the once warring factions, the legislation would restructure the copyright laws to permit cable television operators to continue broadcasting television signals of distant stations to their local area.
However, in a move that would impose more regulation on the cable industry, the operators would be barred from rebroadcasting the signal of any program shown by a distant station in which a local television station owns exclusive syndication rights.
Although the legislation has won the support of the cable, broadcasting and motion picture industries, its fate still is murky.
Professional sports organizations oppose the measure because they say it does not sufficiently protect their members from the rebroadcasting of games without adequate compensation.
As a result, sports interests are trying to block Senate consideration of the measure this week. But Senate sources say a parliamentary maneuver may be possible to allow the Senate to vote on the legislation before the it adjourns for a long election recess this week.
Even if the legislation fails to get through Congress this week, House passage is a long step forward in settling the dispute, which stems from the cable industry's practice of retransmitting via satellite television signals from distant stations, such as Atlanta's "super station" WTBS-TV, to local cable viewers.
Local television station owners and program producers have complained that this practice hurts their profitability because in the retransmission of signals, cable operators are broadcasting shows, such as "M*A*S*H," that already have been exclusively syndicated to local television stations.
As a result, with cable viewers able to watch the same show on more than one channel, viewership for the local television station declines. At the same time, the lucrative syndication rights held by the producer are reduced sharply because the rights become less valuable.
To be adequately compensated for this threat to profitability, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Motion Picture Association of America urged Congress to change the copyright laws to require cable operators to obtain the producer's permission for each syndicated show it wanted to rebroadcast.
Fearful that this would impose a considerable burden on cable operators, the National Cable Television Association agreed to a compromise in which their members have agreed to live by federal regulations lifted by the Federal Communictions Commission two years ago. Under these rules, cable operators will not be able to retransmit any syndicated show in which local television stations already have exclusive rights.
In return, cable operators no longer will be required to carry on their systems all the signals of television stations that operate in their area.
Professional sports organizations complain that the measure does not go far enough because cable operators still will be allowed to rebroadcast sports games without obtaining the permission of the playing teams.
Not only will this mean that the teams may not be adequately compensated, the organizations argue, but it also could hurt local teams because viewers may prefer staying at home watching the cable game instead of going to see a live game.
As a result, sports interests are trying to convince the Senate to add a provision that would require cable operators to negotiate for rebroadcast rights before they show a game. Additionally, some sports organizations want to ban any cable rebroadcast of a sports game during the time a game is being playing locally.