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Black Churches to Protest at FCC, NCTA Over Extending Viewability Rule

A coalition of 34,000 black churches plans to demonstrate in front of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association headquarters and Federal Communications Commission offices, both in Washington, on Wednesday in support of maintaining the agency's viewability rule, which sunsets next week.

In a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, the churches argue that if the rule were not renewed for another three years it would have a serious negative impact on their faith-based broadcast ministries.

"We would like to ensure that our content reaches everyone who would like to see it -- including those consumers that cannot afford, or are not aware that they need, a new cable box," they write. "As we understand it, the Commission is considering letting the rule that now makes sure must-carry stations be viewable by all cable viewers expire. We fear that this could have a devastating impact on our viewers, because many of them rely on analog cable service. Currently, roughly 22 percent of cable subscribers rely on analog service and many more use analog service on second and third TVs."

The churches want a meeting with the chairman to discuss the ramifications of scrapping the rule, though at least in terms of the FCC, they will likely be preaching to the choir.
The commission in February suggested it should extend its cable analog carriage mandate for another three years, and more definitively proposed extending its waiver of the HD carriage mandate for smaller cable operators for three more years as well.
That came in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and declaratory order released by the FCC on Feb. 10. The order part was to clarify that the current three-year mandate and waiver sunsets on June 12, 2012, which is three years from the broadcast DTV transition date, not Feb. 17, 2012, which is three years from the original DTV transition date before it was moved by Congress. That means the FCC will need to act by early next week.
In the rulemaking proposal, the FCC is asking whether it should extend the mandate that cable operators deliver all TV stations' digital signals in analog format to analog customers or, alternatively, make sure all its customers have the equipment to view a digital signal.
It may be in the form of a question, but the FCC signaled in its rulemaking proposal that it was pretty sure of the answer. "The available market evidence seems to indicate that the viewability requirements remain important to consumers."
By contrast, NCTA is ready to get out from under the mandate, one they initially volunteered to accept as a contribution to a smooth DTV transition. In comments to the FCC last March, NCTA argued the carriage mandate is consumer unfriendly, unwieldy, no longer justifiable in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and unconstitutional in the bargain.
NCTA said that it needs the bandwidth being taken up by continued analog and digital carriage of must-carry stations for more consumer-friendly uses like over-the-top video. It points out that the monopoly tag the Supreme Court put on cable in upholding must carry narrowly (5-4) in the Turner decision no longer applies, and even if it did, a dual-carriage mandate would not hold up even under intermediate First Amendment scrutiny today, when cable no longer has the "bottleneck" control over access to customers.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.