Consumer Watchdog Urges FCC to Preserve Viewability Rule

Watchdog group Consumers Union warns the FCC that letting the rule expire would mean higher bills for cable TV users

Cable customers should not be forced to pay additional fees for the converter boxes that would be needed for them to continue receiving broadcast TV signals, if the FCC’s viewability rule is allowed to expire, the watchdog Consumers Union said Friday.

As TheWrap reported on Thursday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants 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.

Also read: FCC Chairman Proposes Eliminating Viewability Rule

The chairman’s proposal came after pressure from broadcasters who feared that the regulation would expire as scheduled on June 12, hurting smaller independent and foreign-language stations.

Genachowski's proposal would instead phase out the regulations over six months. After that date, cable’s analog TV subscribers would have to use digital-to-analog converter boxes to continue receiving the broadcast TV must-carry signals.

Cable operators would be free to charge customers for the boxes, though the proposal suggests that the boxes be low-cost.

“Put simply, this proposal means higher cable bills for consumers,” said Parul Desai, Consumers Union policy counsel, in a statement.

“Consumers already face mounting cable bills, with many of them already paying monthly fees for their current cable boxes,” Desai said. “This proposal would just add to that, with no guidelines as to what ‘low-cost’ really means.”

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

The FCC had no immediate comment.

“Ending the viewability rule would threaten the financial viability of scores of local TV stations that are a source for the most diverse programming on television," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which wants the FCC to extend the viewability rule – established in 2007 to ensure that all 58 million cable TV subscribers have access to local must-carry signals – for another three years.

"But more importantly, it would reward Time Warner Cable and others for refusing to upgrade their systems from analog to digital," Wharton said. "Requiring millions of people to lease yet another box — and pay yet another monthly cable fee — can hardly be considered in the public interest.”  

Not everyone agreed.

“Continuing analog carriage of these must-carry channels will not benefit the vast majority of consumers who want that capacity used for high-definition, faster broadband, video on demand and other interactive services,” said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which has been urging the FCC to let the viewability rule expire. 

“Cable operators have made clear that they will continue to make available low-cost digital converter boxes so customers can view must-carry signals that are being provided only in digital format.”