Despite FCC statements earlier this year about the significance of the “Viewability Rule” and vocal support for it by broadcaster and consumer representatives, the FCC voted to terminate this corollary to “Must-Carry” law. The Viewability Rule had ensured that all cable subscribers, including those with analog equipment, were able to view free, local Must-Carry broadcast signals. Now that rule faces a final sunset just before Christmas.
Must-Carry laws enable many local television broadcast stations, including Christian stations, to be viewed on pay-TV platforms, and they have been upheld by Congress and the Supreme Court. In accordance with that law, the FCC affirmed in its February rulemaking notice on “Carriage of Digital Television Broadcast Signals” that “must-carry stations must be viewable” and proceeded to highlight that “the available market evidence seems to indicate that the viewability requirements remain important to consumers…. as of the third quarter of 2011, more than twelve million cable households were reliant on analog cable delivery.” Last week, however, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a draft order to sunset the rule after six months. Despite appeals, particularly to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has positioned herself as a defender of minority communicators who may be greatly harmed by this rule’s termination, the FCC ultimately voted unanimously to end the rule.
In a letter to Capitol Hill, NRB President and CEO Dr. Frank Wright emphasized, “This completely undermines ‘Must-Carry’ and we have strongly urged the FCC to extend this ‘viewability’ requirement so as to avoid a substantial burden on our faith-based stations, particularly after the significant investment of those stations to satisfy the recent digital transition mandate.” In addition, highlighting that Congress sought through “Must-Carry” law to make local television station programming free to consumers, Dr. Wright noted, “If cable companies can force some of their subscribers to pay for set-top devices now, can future fees imposed on customers to access local programming, including religious content, be far behind?”
Notably, while the decision was a blow to small broadcast stations and their local analog viewers, the same FCC order found it to be in the public interest to provide a three-year extension of the HD carriage exemption for small cable systems.
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations