Five members of the U.S. Senate have cautioned FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler against proceeding with plans to eliminate the FCC’s network non-duplication and syndicated exclusivity (Syndex) rules before Congress exercises its prerogative to amend copyright law. The lawmakers offered their views in a pair of letters delivered to Wheeler, asserting that the cable compulsory copyright license “is designed to work in tandem” with FCC rules that prohibit cable operators from importing duplicative network and syndicated programming from out-of-market stations.  

Last Thursday, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) wrote first to express concern “about the impact that the [FCC’s] proposal to eliminate existing non-duplication and [Syndex] rules may have on consumers.”  Arguing that these rules “are part of a broader broadcasting industry legal and regulatory framework, including must carry, retransmission consent, and compulsory copyrights,” Feinstein urged Wheeler to consider “the impact of eliminating these rules on the statutory copyright licenses for retransmission of broadcast content.”  As she pointed to the requirements of the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014, “which requires a GAO study on these licenses and what changes in communications law  would be needed if they were phased out,” Feinstein called on the FCC to “carefully review the GAO report due in mid-2016 before taking final action” on proposals to eliminate network exclusivity rules.  

Meanwhile, in a letter addressed to Wheeler last Friday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-A) and ranking Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) joined Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and ranking Commerce Committee member Bill Nelson (D-FL) in warning that elimination of the exclusivity rules prior to a corresponding change in copyright law “will potentially alter the way in which the cable compulsory copyright law is intended to function and [will] disrupt local television businesses and viewing households.”  Concluding that such a move on the FCC’s part would be “premature,” the lawmakers asked Wheeler to “cooperate with our committees to identify an approach that appropriately balances both copyright and communications regulation.”  Upon receiving news of the letters, National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Dennis Wharton thanked the lawmakers for their “leadership and concerns,” as he maintained that the exclusivity rules “sustain a broadcast business model built on localism and competition that is a great American success story.”