Hearing on Loan Guarantees and Rural Television Service

Prepared Testimony of the Honorable Conrad Burns (R-MT)
United States Senator

11:00 a.m., Wednesday, February 9, 2000 - Dirksen 628

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

To begin with, I would like to thank Chairman Gramm for holding today's hearing. The fact that this hearing is being held so early in the session is a clear indication of just how serious this issue is to both the Chairman and the entire Senate. I would also like to thank the Chairman for the open and cooperative approach he has taken with me on this issue.

I am very pleased to report that the Chairman and I have come to an agreement in principle on a bill that would provide local TV signals to rural America in a fiscally responsible way. I am confident that the "Burns-Gramm" bill will meet this important goal. The Chairman and I plan to introduce the bill as soon as possible after today's hearing, taking into account the expert testimony we will hear from Dan Crippen, the Director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Providing access to local television signals is crucial to rural states. With over-the-air broadcast signals and cable delivery limited by the geography of my own state of Montana, satellite television has been a staple of our so-called "video marketplace" for many years. In fact, Montana has the highest penetration level of satellite television in the country at over 35 percent.

I initially proposed the rural viewer amendment because I was concerned that without it, only the largest television markets in America would receive local-into-local service authorized by the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act. These are the profitable cities like New York and Los Angeles with millions of television households. Even the most optimistic local-into-local plans will require 2-3 years to employ and then to only about 70 of the 210 TV markets in the U.S.

What about the 140 other TV markets? There are 16 states--including my own--that do not have a single city among the top seventy markets. They should not be left out of the information age just because they are smaller. These 140 markets that would be left out are more than just remote, unpopulated areas. They include half the nation's state capitols and a dozen cities with nearly 500,000 people each.

The rural viewer amendment was designed to spur technologies that would bring news and information to consumers who because of distance or geography are not able to get local TV signals. It could be the launch of satellites to serve the 140 "unserved markets" or it could be terrestrial technologies that deliver these signals.

The ability to receive local television signals is more than just having access to local sports or entertainment programming. It is a critical and immediate way to receive important local news, weather and community information. Access to local signals is particularly critical in Montana, where we experienced severe flooding last fall and sudden blizzards are always a possibility.

During the conference on the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act last fall, I became very concerned that the bill being considered did not address the needs of rural viewers. Several of the conferees shared my concerns and eventually agreed to accept the rural viewer amendment I offered into the conference report, which was approved by the House 411-8. The language that was eventually accepted by the conference went through literally scores of different versions over several weeks to make sure it was fiscally sound and administered properly. It would have created a federal loan guarantee program to make sure that all Americans had access to local television signals.

Even while he agreed with the goal of the amendment, however, Chairman Gramm expressed strong objections to its inclusion in the conference report. Eventually an agreement was reached that the rural viewer amendment would be taken out of the conference report and that it would be given fast-track consideration before the Senate Banking Committee. The Chairman showed his good faith by committing to report legislation to the Senate for floor consideration by March 30, 2000.

Chairman Gramm and I are in absolute agreement that the loan guarantee program must meet two critical conditions-the program should not favor one technology over another and it should not pose a burden to the taxpayer. I am confident that these hearings will serve as a constructive base to make sure that the Senate is able to vote out the best bill possible on this issue.

As I have emphasized to the Chairman during our discussions on how to draft the bill, I have no pride of authorship about the language I submitted to the SHVIA conferees. While I am confident that the rural viewer amendment was the best solution we could have come up with in the final weeks of session, I know it can be improved-and improved significantly. I am not concerned with how this problem is solved but only that it is solved in the most effective way possible, both for consumers and for taxpayers. The Chairman has a wealth of expertise in the financial arena and I welcome his contributions on this issue.

Again, I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to continuing to work with him and other interested members in a bipartisan way to solve this critical problem for America's rural television viewers.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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