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Senate Targets TV Violence

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Dragging cable television into the wildly escalating furor over programming content, the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation last week to regulate violent content on television-whether it originates on broadcast, pay cable or satellite TV.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., was included as an amendment on legislation to crack down on off-color broadcasts by raising the maximum cap on fines for indecency violations to $500,000.
Until last week the legislation, approved in the committee by a 23-0 margin, applied only to programming on broadcast radio and television.
But in a surprise twist, the Hollings amendment leveled the playing field among broadcasters, cable and satellite TV, at least for TV violence.
If the legislation is ultimately enacted into law, it will represent the first time the federal government has directly regulated cable and satellite TV’s programming content.
Cable TV industry lobbyists vowed to fight the initiative, focusing their energies on getting the provision axed when House and Senate leaders are expected to meet in a conference to work out the differences between House and Senate indecency bills.
In the cable industry’s favor is that the House version of indecency legislation, approved in a 391-22 vote last week, did not include a violence prohibition.
House leaders, including Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., also have made clear that they would prefer that legislation target broadcast indecency alone at this point. “It is my hope that we will come to consensus and send a streamlined bill to the president to be signed into law,” said Rep. Upton.
“We oppose this amendment,” added Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
But Sen. Hollings, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of his term, has been promoting similar anti-violence initiatives for years. He is also expected to be assigned to the conference committee for the indecency bills. So some sources say it might be hard to knock out the violence provision.
“Monkey see, monkey do. Children will mimic what they see on TV,” said Sen. Hollings. “I just couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”
Assuming the leg islation is enacted, the violence prohibition, which is supposed to target only “excessive or gratuitous violence,” is not automatically enacted.
It’s only supposed to go into effect if a Federal Communications Commission study confirms that v-chip technology and voluntary industry programming ratings that allow parents to block objectionable programming on TV are not already effectively protecting children-a case that Sen. Hollings maintains has already been clearly and repeatedly made.
The prohibition is also supposed to be in place during hours “when children are reasonably likely to comprise a substantial portion of the audience.” Under the FCC’s existing indecency regulations, that period is defined as the hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
NCTA’s Mr. Dietz said the provision raised constitutional concerns. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has found, the subscription nature of cable service and the ability of cable customers to block unwanted programming through the use of tools offered by local cable systems strongly differentiate cable from broadcasting, which is distributed free and unfiltered over the air,” Mr. Dietz said. “As announced [two weeks ago] in letters to members of Congress and FCC Chairman [Michael] Powell, the cable industry has committed to further increase its efforts to educate customers about using the tools available to them to block programming they find unsuitable for their families. From a First Amendment standpoint, we continue to believe that there are less intrusive means to accomplish the objectives sought by this amendment.”
Sen. Hollings also introduced an amendment that would have required cable operators to offer their programming a la carte-allowing consumers to buy and pay for only the programming they want. Proponents argue the provision is needed to allow consumers to determine what cable programming they allow into their homes. Sen. Hollings withdrew the measure, after it became clear he didn’t have the votes.
In another poke at cable, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., offered an amendment that would have subjected basic cable and satellite TV programming for the first time to the same indecency rules and penalties that broadcasters face. But it was defeated by one vote, 12-11.
In addition, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., released the text of legislation that would force cable operators to offer their programming a la carte, a measure for which the senator is said to be planning hearings.
Gene Kimmelman, Consumers Union senior director, public policy and advocacy, said watchdog groups will be lobbying the Senate to include amendments to the indecency bill on the Senate floor that would require a la carte and extend the broadcast indecency regulations to cable and satellite.
“More fun to come,” Mr. Kimmelman said.