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Dana A. Scherer, What's on Television? The Intersection of Communications and Copyright Policies (CRS Report R44473) (Apr. 20, 2016) (full-text).


In the 1940s and 1950s, watching television meant tuning into one of a few broadcast television stations, with the help of an antenna, to watch a program at a prescheduled time. Over subsequent decades, cable and satellite operators emerged to enable households unable to receive over-the-air signals to watch the retransmitted signals of broadcast television stations. More recently, some viewers have taken to watching TV programming on their computers, tablets, mobile phones, and other Internet-connected devices at times of their own choosing, dispensing with television stations and cable and satellite operators altogether.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Congress, and the courts have overseen this evolution by applying a combination of communications and copyright laws to regulate the distribution of television programming. These laws are intended to achieve three policy goals:

1. protecting the property rights of content owners to encourage the production of television programs;
2. promoting competition among distributors of video programming; and
3. enabling broadcast television stations to serve the local communities to which they are licensed by the FCC.

The regulatory structure intended to accomplish these goals was established in copyright and communications laws and regulations adopted by Congress and the FCC in the 1970s. These laws and regulations grant broadcast stations exclusive rights to carry programming under certain conditions; allow content owners to control the use of copyrighted content except in certain circumstances; and assign cable and satellite operators both obligations and rights with respect to the stations whose signals they retransmit.

This structure has come under increasing stress as firms offer alternative ways to watch television programming, upsetting established relationships and raising questions about whether the key public policy goals defined by Congress can still be achieved. In particular, firms offering television programming to consumers over the Internet, known as online video distributors (OVDs), are not covered by some of the laws and regulations governing video distribution by providers that rely on their own facilities, such as cable and satellite operators. Station owners, meanwhile, are concerned that relationships between OVDs and broadcast networks could adversely affect stations' revenues.

Both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee have announced plans to review and update copyright and communications laws, respectively, while the FCC is considering how and whether to apply its regulations governing the distribution of television signals to a new era. At the same time, federal courts have reached conflicting conclusions as to how copyright laws apply to video programming in the new world of online video distribution. Because of the intertwined relationship between copyright and communications laws, major reform of the regulatory structure governing the distribution of television signals is likely to require Congress or the courts to consider how these two bodies of law intersect.