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Sun Not Setting on ReligiousStations After FCC Order

RELATED: NRB Member Advocates for Christian TV at 'Future of Video' Hearing

In this day and age, religious leaders are constantly grappling with a choice: hold fast to traditions, or find a right balance between long-held beliefs and evolving with the times. Religious and faithbased broadcasters—thanks to the transition from analog to digital, and the challenges of a multiplatform world—are also seeking the right path to serve their core viewers on traditional platforms, while finding the right ways to bring in more.

The challenge has become a front-burner issue for many networks, thanks to the FCC’s release of its viewability order on June 12. The order called for the sunsetting, by December, of the must-carry corollary to the commission’s viewability rule. The blowback from broadcasters was that it would have a negative effect on small, local programmers such as religious and faith-based networks.

The viewability rule required that cable operators with hybrid analog/digital systems deliver those TV stations in both formats. Cable operators must continue to deliver the dual signals until the end of this year, after which they must provide/continue to provide nocost or low-cost converter boxes that allow the remaining analog customers to view digital signals.

But as the FCC said in its order, “The Commission did not make the viewability rule permanent. Instead, the Commission decided to have the rule remain in force for three years after the date of the digital transition.” While religious broadcasters are aware that the sunsetting of the rule poses challenges, a number of them saw it coming and have been preparing for a 24/7 digital world.

“I actually thought it was going to be inevitable,” said Gordon Robertson, CEO of the Christian Broadcast Network. “The amount of bandwidth being consumed by the analog signal, it was just a matter of time.” Robertson said the biggest losers will be the smaller, low-power stations. For CBN, however, he said the switch to full-time digital may actually boost the network. “Certainly for CBN, we’re already doing all digital transmissions, so the switch might actually help us,” Robertson said.

Consumers who may not want to pay for a cable subscription can simply purchase a digital converter and actually see an increase in their over-the-air stations. “I think consumers, as they get more conscious about the cost of cable, we may actually see a resurgence of free-to-air,” said Robertson.

Not all religious broadcasters are praising the idea of eventually packing up their analog stations. The National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), which represents a consortium of commercial and non-commercial stations, is worried about the adverse effect this will have on the non-commercial stations.

“Anything that diminishes [non-coms’] viewership will diminish their ability to communicate their message, and will substantially decrease their fund-raising ability in a bad economy, which in the long run could impact their ability to stay on the air,” said Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for the NRB.

But Robertson sees an inevitability of traditional television viewing giving way to other platforms. “In terms of U.S. broadcasting, the Internet is on its way,” said Robertson. “It’s not going to replace free-to-air and its not going to replace cable, but it’s going to be a very viable and robust channel.” He said CBN is seeing a steady increase in viewership on online and mobile platforms. “We’re moving full steam ahead to the digital world,” he said.

“There’s a silver lining in all of this….A lot of bandwidth is going to go back to the cable industry,” said Bob Higley, VP, affiliate relations, TBN Networks. Higley, in fact, had argued that the must-carry mandate was holding TBN up in launching more networks, including the commercial version of its JCTV channel. “There just wasn’t the channel space,” he said.

Higley explained that Trinity Broadcasting Network stations get roughly one-third of their distribution through broadcast, and having the analog stations carried by cable operators is a vital part of that. “We enjoyed the additional coverage with analog,” he said. “We enjoy pretty much 100% viewability.”

Like CBN, TBN has a large presence outside of traditional television viewing. The company’s iTBN service—which serves as a Christian Hulu-type offering— has seen rapid expansion and adaptation since its launch last September. “[The response] has been really good,” said Higley.

Higley said TBN is looking forward to 2013 and a continued expansion into the digital space. “We hope that this will open up, and the MSOs can add more channels,” he said. “We hope to see more growth in our digital channels.”

“I am not unsympathetic to the FCC’s position, and I believe that the world is going digital,” said Rabbi Mark Golub, president & CEO of Jewish heritage station Shalom TV. Golub added that, with Shalom TV being primarily video-on-demand, the new viewability rule will have little effect on their day-to-day operations.

“Shalom TV is only seen by digital subscribers,” said Golub, “so the viewability rule has no impact on Shalom TV.” Golub added, however, that the company launched a linear version of Shalom TV last March. (The channel is currently being considered for carriage by Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cablevision, among others.) “When Shalom TV is launched as a linear channel, it will also be on every digital platform,” Golub said.

For those who have resisted the switch to digital, Golub said, it’s “not unreasonable” for cable operators to charge $2 so they can view the stations. “Slowly, the 12 million cable viewers who have resisted going digital will in fact go digital, and it will be better for the television industry as a whole,” Golub said. “Philosophically, I believe that America has to go digital.”

A Differing View

While some religious stations may share Golub’s philosophy, do not count Parshall and the NRB among them. “We were disappointed, obviously,” Parshall said of the FCC’s ruling. “Our television folks are very concerned.”

In the weeks leading up to the decision, Parshall and Frank Wright, president & CEO of the NRB, had been stumping for an extension of the viewability rule. “We had advised the commission of our strong support for a lengthy extension of the viewability rule, which we believe is a reasonable adjunct to must-carry,” said Parshall. “We were somewhat surprised at the turnaround by the commission.”

Wright told Capitol Hill that some NRB stations are in very poor areas, and that subscribers will not be able to afford the increased costs that come with digital television. “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?” Wright asked.

However, in the FCC’s ruling, the commission said that a monthly fee of no more than $2 (and in some cases, free) for a digital converters “would satisfy the requirement for affordable equipment because the minimal additional cost, if any, is unlikely to discourage use of this equipment.”

In a letter to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who serves as chairman of the U.S. House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Wright said that many NRB stations “do not have protection through retransmission consent proceedings, but must rely on ‘mustcarry’ rules for carriage on cable of their programming.”

“We are not persuaded by the broadcasters’ analysis that allowing the current viewability rule to expire on schedule will threaten the viability of must-carry stations,” stated the FCC.

Parshall said the NRB is currently deciding what to do next, including exploring legal options. “I am collaborating with other media lawyers who are looking at this FCC decision,” he said.

What lies ahead for the NRB? “At this point, it is too early to tell,” said Parshall.

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