FCC Chairman Proposes Eliminating Viewability Rule

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Under plan from FCC chief Julius Genachowski, cable TV's obligation to carry many small, independent broadcasters would be phased out  

In what could turn out to be a big win for the cable TV industry, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is proposing to eliminate the viewability rule — a regulation that requires cable TV operators to ensure that all of their customers have access to local must-carry TV signals.

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Under the chairman’s proposal, according to several sources close to the agency, the regulation — which is opposed by the cable TV industry — would be phased out over six months. After the cut-off date, cable’s analog TV subscribers would have to use digital-to-analog converter boxes to continue receiving broadcast TV must-carry signals.

Also read: Broadcasters to FCC: Don't Let Cable Systems Drop Local Must-Carry Signals

One source close to the FCC said it was believed that Genachowski (pictured) may already have the three votes necessary for a majority vote of the agency’s five commissioners on the regulations. But the FCC commissioners either hadn’t responded to inquiries from TheWrap or had no comment.

Neil Grace, a spokesman for Genachowski, also told TheWrap the chairman could not comment because the rules are still under negotiation.

Unless the FCC acts to extend the viewability rule, the regulations will expire June 12.
The FCC originally adopted the rule in 2007 so that the millions of cable TV subscribers with analog TV sets could continue getting must-carry TV station signals after the broadcast TV industry switched from analog to digital transmission.

The rule has required cable operators to either retransmit the must-carry signals in both analog and digital formats or to ensure that all subscribers have the equipment needed to view the signals on their TV sets.

The FCC originally set a three-year limit on the rule, assuming that most cable systems would also have switched completely to digital by this time. But about 12.6 million of cable’s customers are still equipped with analog sets and could lose access to must-carry signals if the rule is allowed to expire.

The chairman’s proposal is opposed by must-carry broadcasters — generally the smaller independent, religious and foreign-language broadcasters in each market — that depend on the regulations for carriage.

The cable TV industry claims that the regulation violates cable’s First Amendment rights by making operators devote channel space they could use for other programming to delivering duplicative must-carry signals in both analog and digital formats.

Broadcasters on Thursday also announced the formation of a new group, Independent Voices for Local TV, to lobby Congress and the public for a three-year extension of the rule.

The viewability rule, according to a news release from the new lobbying group, protects 12.6 million analog-only cable TV households with more than 34 million cable TV viewers from losing access to the must-carry stations signals. Under Chairman Genachowski’s proposal, according to the group, the FCC is “pushing the burden on to consumers to make broadcast stations viewable.”