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Commissioners Vote To Sunset Viewability Rule

Despite some last-minute lobbying by broadcasters and their allies, the FCC commissioners were voting Monday night on an order to sunset the viewability rules, according to sources inside and outside the FCC. "Viewability is going down," said one broadcast attorney Monday night.

That means as of December, cable operators will no longer have to deliver dual analog and digital feeds of must-carry TV station signals to satisfy the FCC requirement that they be viewable to their subscribers. Instead, the FCC says that the no-cost and low-cost converter boxes cable operators offer will satisfy the still-important obligation to make must-carry stations accessible to viewers.

While there had been a push by broadcasters to extend the six-month transition period beyond December, it remained six months.

As reported by B&C/Multi last week, the order contains requirements that cable operators give their subs plenty of notice--90-days--of the change, as well as warnings about cable operators raising the prices of those boxes. It also contains potential avenues of redress--reinstating analog carriage--if the FCC gets sufficient complaints about the sunset from viewer, and edit said to have been in the final order by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

That vote came despite at least one last-minute call from the Hill to extend the viewability rules for another three years--they would have sunset immediately on June 12 without FCC action one way or the other.

The vote was said to be 5-0, but Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, in a statement confirming her vote, made it clear it did not come easily. "Cable providers have committed to this office that they will make the transition as painless as possible and that if needed, set-top boxes will be widely available, at an extremely low (if any) cost, easy to get, and easy to install. I will hold them to that commitment," she said. "This step is the one of the biggest examples of a trust-based approach in quite some time, and yes, it comes with some anxiety."

The FCC, including Clyburn, who has made furthering diversity a priority of her tenure, had been under pressure from minority religious broadcasters, who protested at the commission and the National Cable & Telecommunication Association last week in support of renewing the rules. They argued that it threatened to cut their must-carry stations off from millions of viewers who might not seek out the technology necessary to pick up a few stations.

Clyburn, in a statement Monday, spoke directly to that issue. "While there will be an initial adjustment period once the analog stream is removed, this transition may actually help increase diverse programming via the dedication of more spectrum, which in actuality could lead to more capacity for increased channel options," she said. "Going from analog to digital will result in better and more efficient service to consumers, and will allow cable companies to offer more content with less bandwidth. Stemming from this will be the ability to provide more diverse services, such as multiple digital streams for a variety of unique offerings, like national diverse and ethnic programming that cannot be currently carried due to space restrictions."

Earlier in the day, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) had written to the commissioners asking them to renew the rule, or at least make the transition a year instead of six monghts, saying it was a firewall against limiting choices or raising costs for programming.

Almost lost in the viewability issue is the FCC's three-year extension of the waiver of HD carriage mandates for smaller cable systems, which the American Cable Association had pushed for. THe FCC had already signaled it was inclined to renew the waiver.