Is Congress Turning Off Your Televangelist?

Christian broadcasters speak out against a new measure from Rep. Steve Scalise.

Religious broadcasters aren't happy about a bill that would eliminate providers' obligation to carry their stations.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Dec. 17, 2013, midnight

Con­gress is try­ing to take tel­ev­an­gel­ists from your tele­vi­sions.

That’s the ar­gu­ment from faith-based broad­casters who are push­ing to pre­serve the na­tion’s “must-carry” rules. The rules, which date back to 1992, re­quire cable and satel­lite com­pan­ies to pick up loc­al broad­cast af­fil­i­ates — even the small, less pop­u­lar sta­tions.

Rep. Steve Scal­ise, R-La., is push­ing le­gis­la­tion to scrap those rules as part of a broad­er ef­fort to de­reg­u­late the air­ways. On­line video and ex­pans­ive satel­lite lineups have giv­en con­sumers so many op­tions that the gov­ern­ment no longer needs to de­cide who car­ries what, Scal­ise said.

But loc­al broad­casters say they provide a pub­lic good, and there­fore pro­viders should be barred from drop­ping them in fa­vor of po­ten­tially more luc­rat­ive out­side pro­gram­ming.

And that’s where tel­ev­an­gel­ists come in. By and large, their ser­mons aren’t car­ried by ma­jor net­works, mak­ing them more vul­ner­able if pro­viders are sud­denly re­lieved of their man­date to carry loc­al pro­gram­ming. Un­der Scal­ise’s bill, if DISH Net­work de­cides an­oth­er chan­nel can bring in more money than loc­al Chris­ti­an net­work af­fil­i­ates, it’s un­der no ob­lig­a­tion to keep bring­ing view­ers their daily dose of Pat Robertson.

The bill “would be a sig­ni­fic­ant det­ri­ment to a num­ber of Chris­ti­an TV sta­tions and the view­ers who rely on them for spir­itu­al guid­ance,” said Na­tion­al Re­li­gious Broad­casters Pres­id­ent Dr. Jerry John­son. “These long-stand­ing car­riage rules en­sure that view­ers can ac­cess the im­port­ant and edi­fy­ing pro­gram­ming their loc­al Chris­ti­an broad­casters of­fer free-of-charge.”

Still, there seems to be some con­fu­sion about which broad­casters would be af­fected by the meas­ure. Steph­en Bell, Scal­ise’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, said that “non­com­mer­cial” broad­casters would get to keep their must-carry pro­tec­tions, but he would not spe­cify if net­works such as CBN, Trin­ity Broad­cast­ing Net­work, and Etern­al Word Tele­vi­sion Net­work would qual­i­fy for that ex­emp­tion.

NRB’s vice pres­id­ent of gov­ern­ment re­la­tions, Aaron Mer­cer, could only of­fer that “there are re­li­gious sta­tions that fall in­to both cat­egor­ies.” Must-carry rules mostly ap­ply to smal­ler sta­tions; af­fil­i­ates of big net­works of­ten waive their car­riage guar­an­tees in or­der to ne­go­ti­ate pay­ments for their broad­casts. But for many re­li­gious sta­tions that don’t have the bar­gain­ing power of pop­u­lar prime-time pro­gram­ming, must-carry is their tick­et in­to many of their view­ers’ homes.

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