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FCC wants to free cable operators of dual-carriage “viewability” rule

In what would appear to be a blow to broadcasters, the FCC is circulating a proposal that would no longer require cable operators to retransmit must-carry signals in both analog and digital formats.

John Eggerton at Broadcasting & Cable first reported that Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is pushing the proposal, which would substitute low-cost converter boxes to allow analog customers to continue to view TV station signals. The proposal, if passed, would go in effect on December 11, 2012.

Cable operators had originally agreed to carry both the analog and digital signals to aid the digital transition. Now they want to end the mandate, which is automatically set to expire on Tuesday, June 12. The new FCC ruling would provide a six-month transition period beyond the June 12 sunset date.

“We believe the viewability requirement is best read to give the operator of a hybrid system [digital and analog] greater flexibility in deciding how to comply with the viewability mandate,” the order was quoted. “In particular, while such an operator may continue to carry must-carry signals in a format that is capable of being viewed by analog service customers without the use of additional equipment, rapid changes in the marketplace and technology, in particular the widespread availability of small digital set-top boxes [that] cable operators make available at low or no cost to analog customers of hybrid systems provide alternative means by which must-carry television signals can be made viewable to all analog customers.”

The commission also emphasized the benefits of using the analog capacity for new digital channels and increased broadband.

“The low-cost set-top box offers reflected in our record will satisfy our new interpretation of the viewability requirement,” said the order, “permitting the cable operator to make the must-carry signal available by offering analog customers the necessary digital equipment at an affordable cost.”

For example, said the commission, “we note that Comcast for a period of time after migrating a system to all digital, typically offers two or three free DTA’s [digital boxes] to customers, and charges less than two dollars for additional boxes.”

In 2007, the FCC decided in order to ensure that all must-carry TV stations are viewable by all subscribers after the switch to all-digital broadcasting, that cable operators would be required in addition to carrying digital signals to convert digital signals to analog. This could have been done for their analog customers either at the headend or with converter boxes. The mandate lasted for three years, ending June 12. Cable termed this the “dual-carriage” mandate.

B&C's Eggerton reported that last March, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said it was ready to get out from under the mandate, saying it was consumer-unfriendly, unwieldy and no longer justifiable in a fiercely competitive marketplace. It was also called unconstitutional.

A group calling itself “Independent Voices for Local TV” said if the FCC proposal goes through 30 million viewers could lose access to religious, ethnic and general interest programming. The group said it represents local television stations, station groups and other interested parties.

“The FCC is pushing the burden on to consumers to make broadcast stations viewable,” said Peggy Binzel, spokesperson for the coalition. “That’s not right and it’s not what Congress intended. Suddenly, 20 percent of our cable viewers may lose access to our members’ news, entertainment and religious programming without leasing a box and won’t receive any meaningful information in advance about what’s going on.”

Binzel, who works for the Podesta Group, a PR firm in Washington, D.C., was once head of the Washington office for News Corp. and also headed government relations for Turner Broadcasting.

The order must be voted on by the FCC by June 12 or the viewability rule will sunset immediately.