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FCC, Cable See Eye to Eye on ‘Viewability’

6/18/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington — In an unusually pure-play
faceoff between cable operators and broadcasters at
the Federal Communications Commission — and
after much back and forth — broadcasters ended up
back and cable operators most definitely forth on
the issue of providing dual carriage of analog and
digital broadcasts.

As expected after a Multichannel News report last
week, the FCC voted — unanimously — to lift the
“viewability” mandate that requires cable providers
to carry the analog and digital versions of mustcarry
broadcast-TV stations.

That means that as of Dec. 12, cable operators with
analog-only customers can instead make stations’
digital signals viewable to that declining viewer population
by supplying them with low-cost or no-cost
digital-to-analog (DTA) converter boxes.

The FCC made clear last week that the sunset did
not mean cable operators had to phase out their
analog customers, going so far as to title the website
item on the ruling “Viewability Rule Sunsets;
Affordable Boxes or Analog Carriage Allowed.”

The “analog carriage” mention appeared to be
a bone to nervous broadcasters, which certainly
got no meat out of the order beyond a provision,
reportedly pushed by commissioner Mignon
Clyburn, that the FCC could reinstate a dualcarriage
mandate if there were enough consumer complaints
about access to converter boxes.

Cable has been chafing at the mandate — though the industry
initially agreed to such carriage, voluntarily, as one of
its contributions to the transition to digital over-the-air TV.

From 2007 to 2012, the number of analog-only homes
had declined from 12 million from 40 million, or 20% of
cable subscribers from 46%, the FCC said.

Ending the dual-carriage requirement could free up
spectrum for dozens of new channels or enhanced Internet
service, one of the main reasons the FCC gave for agreeing
with almost every argument
and promise cable
operators made.

The FCC action will almost
certainly prompt a
digital-TV transition for
cable operators, though
stations that have opted
for retransmission consent
can still require
dual carriage, if that’s
called for in their contracts.

“It will make every
sense in the world to
reclaim those” 6-MHz
analog channels, one
cable attorney said.
“The gain for the cable
customer is that there
will be more offerings
and more robust plant.
The minus is that, unless
the box is free, there will
be a price tag for this
conversion.”

The FCC, as it did
with its proposal to allow
digital-basic service
to be scrambled,
is signaling that some
viewer dislocation or
cost — which it suggests
would be minimal
— may be the price that
must be paid for broadband
progress.

DO THE MATH

The FCC considered these factors in deciding to end the analog-digital dualcarriage
requirement:

Share of cable systems with at least one must-carry station: 96%

Average number of must-carry stations per system: 7

Amount of bandwidth freed up per analog channel: 6 MHZ

Number of HD cable channels each 6 MHz could accommodate: 2-3

Number of SD channels each 6 MHz could accommodate: 10-12


SOURCE:
FCC, citing NCTA, SNL Kagan

STARING AT THE SUNSET

Highlights from the FCC’s viewability order:

Cable operators will no longer have to carry two (and sometimes
three) versions of a must-carry station.

The transition period will last six months.

Cable operators must give 90 days’ notice when cutting off
analog signals.

Cable operators must make a digital converter available at no
more than $2 per month so customers with analog sets.

The FCC reserves the right to reinstitute dual carriage on a caseby-
case basis given “a significant number of well-founded consumer
complaints” that equipment is not readily available and affordable.

SOURCE: FCC

September