The Federal Communicatons Commission voted 5-0 to extend its "viewability rule" for six months.
The rule requires cable operators to ensure that all of their customers have access to local must-carry TV signals until Dec. 12.
The rule was slated to expire automatically Tuesday. Without it, cable’s analog TV subscribers will have to use digital-to-analog converter boxes to continue receiving broadcast TV must-carry signals.
The decision — proposed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski — comes as a victory for cable operators, but a defeat for small independent and foreign-language broadcasters, who fear that without the rule they will lose a good percentage of their audiences.
About 12.6 million cable households are still equipped with analog sets — out of a total 58 million cable subscribers. Unless those customers lease or buy digital-to-analog converter boxes from their cable operators, they may lose access over their cable systems to the must-carry signals.
Under the FCC decision announced Tuesday, the cable industry will be able to charge the millions of analog cable TV industry customers for the converters they will need to continue getting the must-carry signals.
An FCC spokeswoman told TheWrap that the agency is recommending that cable operators not charge "materially" more than $2 a month for the converters.
In the text of the FCC’s new rule, the agency also said that if "a significant number" of consumers complain about being overcharged by an operator, the FCC might require the operator to carry analog must-carry signals again.
“In reality, the operator can charge whatever it wants,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, in response.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association President and CEO Michael Powell commended the FCC "for the adoption of a forward-looking, pro-consumer order that will promote the deployment of faster broadband and the expansion of new and exciting digital services."
"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," he added in his statement. "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.”
The viewability rule was adopted by the FCC in 2007 so that that millions of cable TV subscribers with analog TV sets could continue receiving must-carry TV stations 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 most cable systems would also have switched to digital by now. Broadcasters had been lobbying for the FCC to extend the rule for another three years.
When word got out Monday that Genachowski's compromise plan was likely to be passed, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., urged the agency to extend the rule for “at least one year.”
“Without the viewability rule, consumers without all-digital cable service would be forced to purchase or lease supplementary cable boxes, resulting in additional fees to view programming that was previously included at no cost,” Quigley said in a letter to Genachowski.
The watchdog Consumers Union took a different tack: It has asked the FCC, assuming the rule were axed, to require cable operators to provide free converter boxes to their analog customers.
The cable TV industry argued that the viewability 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.