WASHINGTON (CN) – Over the objections of broadcast television networks, the Federal Communications Commission will allow its viewability rule to expire on Dec. 12.
The rule requires cable companies to provide analog versions of their digital must-carry signals for subscribers with analog TV sets.
Must-carry signals are local broadcast TV stations the FCC requires cable operators to carry on their services.
After Congress decreed that all broadcast TV stations had to transition to digital transmission in 2007, the FCC adopted the viewability rule so that households with analog televisions would still be able to watch the must-carry stations.
The rule only applied to operators of hybrid cable systems, those that carried both analog and digital systems at the time Congress mandated transition to digital transmission. At that time, there were still 40 million analog cable subscribers, the FCC says.
The FCC says that the cost of providing set-top boxes to convert a digital signal for viewing on an analog television is now so low it does not make sense to require cable companies to provide the analog service.
In previous orders, the FCC held that the Communications Act required cable companies to ensure analog subscribers could watch the must-carry signals without any equipment beyond the existing cable boxes.
Now the FCC says its interpretation was too narrow and that nothing in the language of the act prohibits cable companies from meeting the viewability through additional equipment, so long as the cost of the equipment is not so high as to discourage use.
The National Association of Broadcasters objected that allowing set-top boxes would reduce the quality of the signal received by analog television users thus reducing the likelihood that they would use the devices and that the devices would be cost prohibitive.
The FCC said that the technology of digital signal convertors has changed since 2007, improving quality and driving down cost.
The NAB also argued that the viability of local broadcast stations would be threatened if analog television cable subscribers stopped watching their channels. The FCC noted that there are now fewer than 12 million analog cable subscribers and that their numbers are expected to decline as more cable systems become digital-only transmission services and the existing stock of analog televisions is depleted.