Broadcasters to FCC: Don’t Let Cable Systems Drop Local Must-Carry Signals

The NAB is leading a coalition in a campaign to keep the FCC's "viewability rule" — which would affect 12 million viewers — on the books past its June 12 expiration date 

Broadcast industry executives are turning up the heat in their campaign to retain a Federal Communications Commission rule that requires cable TV operators to ensure that all of their customers have access to local must-carry signals.

Unless it takes action, the FCC's so-called three-year-old “viewability rule” is set to automatically expire on June 12.

The rule ensures that all 58 million cable TV subscribers have access to local must-carry signals — not just the 46 million who subscribe to digital cable.

Eliminating the viewability rule would severely undermine the viewership of independent, religious and foreign-language stations that rely on the regulation to reach all cable viewers, broadcasters say.

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.

It 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. 

Also read: FCC Chairman to Broadcasters: Keep Betting Big on Digital

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 broadcasters want to extend the rule by another three years. At very least, they demand that cable operators provide customers with the equipment to continue viewing the must-carry signals for free.

For their part, cable TV industry executives are asking the FCC to let the regulation expire, contending that the rule violates the 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.

“The burdens imposed by the viewability rule are substantial and increasing,” the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in one of a series of recent FCC filings on the subject.

Broadcasters — led by the National Association of Broadcasters — have a different view.

“The TV stations being targeted by the cable lobby provide a rich diversity of viewpoint and formats to the viewing public,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement. “Why in the world should consumers be forced to buy yet another bulky box from Big Cable just to have continued access to this programming?”

Liberman Broadcasting, a Spanish-language broadcaster that owns five TV stations, including KRCA-TV in Los Angeles, said elimination of the rule could result in the loss of 300,000 homes for EstrellaTV, or 4.3 percent of the audience for the company’s new Spanish-language network.

"Eliminating the rule "could have a devastating impact on our viewers,” added Rev. Sheldon Williams, president of the National Black Religious Broadcasters, in a statement on NBRB’s website. “If the FCC changes the viewability rule, it would be grossly unfair to black religious broadcasters.”

And in a recent lobbying visit, the broadcastering coalition — which includes Brandon Burgess, chairman and CEO of ION Media Networks, owner of 60 independent TV stations — told the FCC: “This loss of viewership could cost ION over $100 million over the next three years. This revenue loss would be a significant blow to ION’s efforts to compete as an independent network against the major networks and vertically owned programmers.”

An FCC spokesman declined comment.

Brian Dietz, an NCTA spokesman, told TheWrap that if the rule is allowed to die, cable operators wouldn’t drop service to analog must-carry customers.

“We will make low-cost digital-to-analog converter boxes available to all customers who want to continue viewing these signals,” Dietz said, though he declined to specify how much operators would charge for the boxes.

“Each operator has a different strategy for providing digital-to-analog converters to their customers, so there isn’t a blanket statement that can be made about cost,” Dietz said.

The viewability rule does not affect the larger TV stations, including affiliates of the Big 4 TV networks. These generally rely on the FCC’s retransmission consent regulations rather than the must-carry rule to cover the carriage of their own signals on local cable systems. Retransmission consent gives stations that choose to forgo must-carry the right to negotiate fees with pay-TV providers.