In a move that has upset the broadcast industry, the Federal Communications Commission said it would let lapse a rule that required cable operators to carry local television signals in analog.
About 12 million cable subscribers across the country could lose access to some of their local TV stations unless they upgrade their equipment or switch to antennas. The FCC said many cable operators are making such equipment available at little or no cost to subscribers.
In 2007, when the FCC laid the groundwork for the transition to high-definition television, it required cable operators to also carry local stations in the old analog format. At the time, it set the expiration of that provision for December 2012.
“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,” said Michael K. Powell, a former chairman of the FCC who is now chief executive of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.
Powell added that “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 stations most likely to feel the brunt of the demise of what the FCC calls the “viewability requirement” are smaller stations, many carrying religious fare or catering to a particular minority group. Those stations have relied on an FCC rule, known as “must carry,” that requires a cable operator to carry a local television station on both its digital and analog tiers at no cost to it.
Now cable operators will no longer have to carry those stations on its analog tier. Bigger stations, such as those affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, receive payment from cable operators in return for their signals and probably will not be affected.
Broadcasters tried to convince the FCC that the so-called sunset provision should be extended three years but to no avail. Earlier this month, a coalition of black churches staged a small protest about the rule change at the FCC and the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., which is the chief lobbying arm of the cable industry.
“Today’s FCC decision has the potential to impose negative financial consequences on small local TV stations that are a source for minority, religious and independent program diversity across America,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. “If that is the outcome, millions of viewers will be the losers.”
One Los Angeles-area station that may feel the effect of this rule going away is Spanish-language station KJLA-TV, which was part of a group of broadcasters that launched a publicity campaign this month in hopes of changing the FCC’s mind.
Many broadcasters see the FCC’s and Chairman Julius Genachowski’s motivation to sunset the rules as part of a broader plan to encourage smaller broadcasters to exit the television business and sell their airwaves so they can be used for new technologies such as mobile devices.
“Reallocating large hunks of TV spectrum to wireless broadband via the auction is what Genachowski is all about,” wrote Harry Jessell, editor of TVNewsCheck, an industry Web publication that often advocates for broadcasters. “He believes that broadband is the future of media, commerce and education and he wants to make sure it doesn’t starve for spectrum.”
An FCC spokeswoman and an aide to Genachowski both declined to comment.
Interestingly, one of those who may have to upgrade his cable is FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell.
In his statement supporting the agency’s decision, McDowell acknowledged that he has only analog cable service and added that he expects that “the cable industry will work with the affected broadcasters and their viewers (such as myself) to ensure that, if analog signals will be ceased, consumers are aware of how to obtain an affordable set-top box and such equipment is provided in a timely manner so that consumers are not inconvenienced and broadcasters do not lose viewership.”