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Watchdog Sets Sights on a la Carte

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In an effort to bring the battle over off-color programming to the cable TV industry, the watchdog Parents Television Council is planning to lobby vigorously this year for a la carte legislation that would give consumers the right to choose and pay for only the cable programming they want in their homes.

“This is going to be the next indecency fight,” Lara Mahaney, PTC director of corporate and entertainment affairs, said in an interview last week. “There is definitely a rising tide of anger among consumers who simply want to get the Disney Channel and they’re forced to pay for and accept the likes of MTV and FX into their homes.”

In a report late last year, the Federal Communications Commission panned a la carte, arguing that forcing cable operators to ax basic tiers to allow consumers to pay for only the programming they select would result in higher prices for most consumers and less consumer choice.

Many in the industry were hoping that the FCC report-coming on the heels of other government and industry-sponsored studies that came to a similar conclusion-would be the final word on the subject, slamming the door on initiatives that could otherwise force them to fundamentally restructure the way they do business.

“The cable industry announced an initiative last year under which cable companies agreed to provide free channel-blocking technology to customers who wish to prevent specific channels from entering their home, which is a far better solution than government regulation driving up prices while reducing choice and diversity in media,” said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

But according to Ms. Mahaney, PTC-which is credited for kicking up much of the fuss about indecent broadcasting last year-the FCC report and other studies fall short because they give short shrift to PTC’s central concern: That requiring consumers to subscribe to the packages of programming offered in basic tiers forces them to subsidize programming they might find objectionable.

“In my household, I know we would be willing to pay $2 a month more not to get FX and MTV,” Ms. Mahaney said. “[The cable TV industry is] wanting [a la carte] to be dead,” Ms. Mahaney added. “It’s not dead among consumers.”

At any rate, in an action alert on the group’s Web site, www. parentstv.org, PTC is already urging its members to write lawmakers and the FCC to support a la carte. It has also posted a PTC study that documents off-color incidents gleaned from basic cable channels.

“To say that cable television is in the sewer would be an insult to sewage,” the Web site says.

The FCC report said that the only consumers likely to see their cable bills reduced under a mandatory a la carte regime would be those subscribing to fewer than nine channels. Consumers who purchase at least nine networks are apt to experience an increase, according to the FCC. Those who buy 17 channels-the number watched by the average cable consumer-likely would see their bills rise by 14 percent to 30 percent a month, the FCC said.

Also on the indecency front, leading lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expected to introduce legislation to beef up the penalties for broadcast indecency later this month.

Leading the charge in the House will be Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who, according to a spokesman, is planning to re-introduce a measure that was approved in a 391-22 vote by the House of Representatives last March.

Among other things, the House legislation would raise the cap for broadcast indecency fines from $32,500 to $500,000 per incident. In addition, it would establish a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” policy under which broadcasters with three indecency violations could lose their licenses. It would also require the FCC to act on indecency complaints within six months of their filing. Yet another provision would make clear that on-air talent and network originators of offensive programming-not only the station licensee-are subject to the fines.

A spokesman said that Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who has been leading the indecency charge in the Senate, is also expected to introduce crackdown legislation but had yet to decide what provisions to include.

Broadcast indecency legislation failed to win Senate approval last year, largely because it had been amended to include a controversial provision that would have barred the FCC from relaxing media ownership rules.

But Ms. Mahaney said PTC will actively discourage similar amendments to the legislation this time around, improving the prospects for the anti-indecency measure’s passage.

On a related front last week, the FCC confirmed that it is looking into complaints alleging that NBC might have run afoul of agency indecency prohibitions when M%F6;tley Cr%FC;e’s Vince Neil wished another band member a “Happy f***ing New Year” during a New Year’s segment on the network’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” But sources said the fact that the remark was made after midnight-during the FCC’s 10 p.m.-6 a.m. “safe harbor” for indecency-would appear to substantially reduce the case for agency prosecution. The remark aired live on the East Coast but was edited out for West Coast feeds.