In an apparent defeat for television broadcasters and their supporters, the FCC has voted 5-0 to retire dual carriage of must-carry television stations effective this December.
The ruling means that cable operators will no longer have to deliver dual analog and digital feeds of must-carry signals to subscribers, as they have for the past (at least) three years. As a replacement strategy, the commission found that low-cost converter boxes would satisfy the obligation to bring must-carry stations to viewers. Exactly how these would be distributed is yet to be determined.
Some niche broadcasters had wanted the three-year rule extended, arguing that 30 million viewers would lose access to religious, ethnic and general interest programming if the rule is abolished.
As first reported by John Eggerton in Broadcasting & Cable online, the order had to be addressed by June 12, or the current viewability rule would have sunset and ended carriage immediately. Essentially, what the FCC did was to extend it for a six-month transition period.
Broadcasters had pushed to extend the six-month transition period beyond December, but apparently lost support among the Commissioners.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said her vote on the issue did not come easily.
“Cable providers have committed to this office that they will make the transition as painless as possible and that if needed, set-top boxes will be widely available, at an extremely low (if any) cost, easy to get, and easy to install. I will hold them to that commitment,” Clyburn said. “This step is the one of the biggest examples of a trust-based approach in quite some time, and yes, it comes with some anxiety.”
Clyburn had been under pressure not to end the rule from minority religious broadcasters, who protested at the commission.
As per B&C's Eggerton, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) wrote to the commissioners before the vote asking them to renew the rule, or at least make the transition a year instead of six months. It was, he said, a firewall against limiting choices or raising costs for programming.