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FCC Sunsets Analog Must-Carry

WASHINGTON: A rule requiring appropriately equipped cable operations to provide must-carry digital broadcast signals in an analog format will expire in six months. The Federal Communications Commission voted last night to do away with what’s known as the “viewability” rule aimed at preserving channel access for subscribers with analog TVs.

“The widespread availability of small digital set-top boxes... provide alternative means by which must-carry television signals can be made viewable to all analog customers who are served by hybrid systems,” the Report and Order states, referring to cable systems with the capability to deliver both analog and digital transmissions.

The viewability rule was established in anticipation of the 2009 digital TV transition. It was adopted in 2007, when analog-only cable subscribers comprised roughly 40 million U.S. TV households. Viewability was never intended to be permanent, and was set to expire today. The commission’s R&O added a six-month extension to give cable operators the time to accommodate their remaining analog-only subscribers should they elect to go all-digital.

“This transitional period will give consumers, cable operators and broadcasters that rely on must-carry access an opportunity to prepare for that deployment and to take other necessary steps,” the R&O states.

Religious broadcasters opposed the sunset of viewability. The National Religious Broadcasters said that without the rule, “coverage, particularly from a Christian perspective, will disappear from cable.”

“There seems to be no question that individual religious broadcasters, who have an utter lack of bargaining power in the retransmission consent process, and no leverage to insure carriage over cable without must-carry rules in place, would disappear from cable in short order,” the NRB said in a filing with the FCC.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn had concerns with the sunset’s effect on programming diversity, but she ended up voting in favor of it.

“While there will be an initial adjustment period once the analog stream is removed, this transition may actually help increase diverse programming via the dedication of more spectrum, which in actuality could lead to more capacity for increased channel options,” she said in a prepared statement.

Clyburn also noted that all must-carry stations would continue to be carried by cable operators on their basic tiers. The National Association of Broadcasters was nonetheless skeptical.

“NAB remains concerned that today’s FCC decision has the potential to impose negative financial consequences on small local TV stations that are a source for minority, religious and independent program diversity across America,” said the group’s spokesman, Dennis Wharton. “If that is the outcome, millions of viewers will be the losers. NAB will be reviewing our options with our board of directors.”

The cable lobby chiefs welcomed the ruling. Matt Polka, chief of the American Cable Association, said that “by permitting cable operators to offer must-carry signals in digital only, these providers can now use the reclaimed capacity to offer improved services, such as better broadband and more programming options.”

He also mentioned the continued exemption for smaller cable operators from mandatory carriage of must-carry HD signals in their native high-definition format.

“ACA appreciates that the FCC recognized the technical and economic challenges faced by smaller cable systems,” he said.

Michael Powell, head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, commended the commission and its chairman, Julius Genachowski, for sunsetting viewability.

“With the majority of all households now enjoying digital services, the cable industry will maximize its bandwidth to provide innovative services that connect consumers to things they care about most. And while some customers have yet to make the transition to digital, cable providers will continue to work hard to make that conversion as smooth as possible,” he said.