DTV viewability, exemption from HD carriage requirement subjects of FCC comment-seeking

The FCC said Feb. 10, 2012, that it wants to know if it should extend the sunset date for two rules affecting how cable TV operators deal with broadcasters’ DTV signals are due to sunset.

The agency is asking for comments on whether or not it should extend the viewability requirement it set up in 2007 to ensure cable operators continued to comply with their must-carry obligation in the era of digital television. The requirement gave cable operators the option of carrying the digital signal of a television station in analog format to all analog subscribers or carrying the digital signal as long as all subscribers had the equipment needed to view the signal.

The other rule deals with how cable operators deal with an HDTV signal from a broadcast station. The rule, also adopted in 2007, prohibits cable operators from materially degrading the broadcast signal, thus requiring the cable operator to carry any broadcast HD signal in high definition. Recognizing the cost and challenge of upgrading the technical infrastructure to comply with the rule, the commission exempted small cable systems for three years.

Both the exemption to the prohibition on degradation of broadcast HDTV signals and the viewability rule are set to expire June 12, 2012 — three years after the delayed shutoff of analog television transmission in the United States. (The FCC also issued a declaratory ruling establishing the sunset date as June 12, 2012, to clear up any confusion created when Congress extended the DTV transition date.)

In its Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the DTV cable carriage docket, the commission is seeking comment on whether the extending the sunset of the HD exemption and viewability requirement by three years is in the public interest.

The agency notes in the FNPRM that when the viewability requirements were set up, there were about 40 million analog-only cable subscribers. Today, data from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association indicates that the rate at which customers are converting to digital cable service has slowed. As of the third quarter of 2011, more than 12 million cable households relied on analog cable delivery, and potentially millions more have hybrid digital and analog service, it said.

The agency is seeking comments on a variety of questions related to both rules, including:

  • What additional costs, if any, would maintaining the viewability rule create for cable operators?
  • What are the costs associated with transitioning to an all-digital cable operation?
  • What is the range of costs for digital set-top boxes and what is the range of costs charged to subscribers?
  • How many hybrid cable operators plan to go all-digital?
  • Should the sunset of the viewability rule be extended for three years, another period or not at all?
  • How many cable operators currently rely on the HD exemption?
  • Why are operators relying on the exemption, and what are the business conditions they face?

Those interested in filing comments will have 25 days after publication of the FNPRM in the Federal Register; reply comments will be due 35 days after publication.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.