Cable Indecency May Wait Till ’06

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In a move that the cable industry hopes other congressional leaders will quickly second, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said last week he wants to put off until at least next year consideration of any legislation that would subject cable and satellite TV to indecency regulation.

Meanwhile, when or if legislation is proposed to set indecency standards for cable and satellite, it may get the support of the White House. President Bush weighed in last week with support for the concept of indecency standards for cable and satellite.

The threat that cable could soon be subject to the same indecency prohibitions that broadcasters face has been gaining momentum over the past couple of months. Rep. Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, have made clear they want to level the playing field between broadcasters and cable when it comes to off-color programming.

But at a news conference on Capitol Hill last week, Rep. Barton said he now wants Congress to focus first on an indecency bill that addresses over-the-air broadcasting only. That bill, approved by a 389-38 vote in the House in February, would increase the fines for broadcast indecencies from $32,500 to $500,000.

Currently, only broadcasters are subject to Federal Communications Commission regulations on the subject. Cable and satellite are explicitly exempt.

Some industry observers said the prospects of cable and satellite avoiding indecency regulation will improve if their programming isn’t included in the broadcast bill, because much of the legislative momentum on the issue could dissipate with the broadcast bill’s passage. But an aide warned that Sen. Stevens has not backed off cable’s case on indecency-and other sources warned that there’s a strong likelihood the House broadcasting bill would be amended to include cable and satellite when addressed in the Senate, regardless of Rep. Barton’s preferences.

“God forbid that a member of Congress is going to allow themselves to be portrayed as a friend of porn on television,” one industry source said.

While President Bush said he supports the concept of standards for cable and satellite, in remarks before the American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in Washington he said he also believes parents share a responsibility for the kinds of programming they allow in their homes.

“But I don’t mind standards being set out for people to adjudge the content of a show, to help parents make right decisions,” the president said. “Government ought to help parents, not hinder parents in sending good messages to their children.”

President Bush also said that in a free society, the marketplace makes decisions. “If you don’t like something, don’t watch it, and presumably advertising dollars will wither and the show will go off the air. But I have no problems with standards being set to help parents make good decisions.”

(By the next day, the White House was insistent that the president had misspoken, contending that he thought he was talking about broadcasters only. Jeanie Mamo, a White House spokeswoman, also said the president has not taken a public position on cable and satellite. “He hasn’t spoken to that,” she said.)

Despite those concerns, Rep. Barton told TelevisionWeek he thinks including cable and satellite in the broadcast bill could “complicate” the broadcast bill’s prospects. “We shouldn’t let the issue of cable and satellite bog down the over-the-air decency issue,” he said.

Rep. Barton also said the cable industry is working on a plan to address congressional indecency concerns voluntarily. But it’s far from clear that the plan that industry sources said the cable industry is currently discussing-essentially an enhanced commitment to promote technology already available to permit cable customers to block offensive programming-will go far enough to appease lawmakers.

“If that’s not sufficient, [Congress can] come back to that at another time,” Rep. Barton said.

Complicating cable’s prospects is the National Association of Broadcasters’ entry into the fray. “Responsible self-regulation by [the] industry is far preferable to government regulation in areas of programming,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for NAB. “But if there is regulation, then it ought to apply equally to cable, broadcast and satellite.”

The Walt Disney Co., meanwhile, is continuing to argue that extending indecency regulation to cable’s basic tiers would be preferable to retiering.

“Broadcasting programming can be blocked by the customer using a v-chip or using the blocking technology in their cable box, and therefore there is no reason to have separate indecency rules for broadcast and cable,” said Preston Padden, Disney executive VP of government relations. “The worst possible outcome for everyone would be mandated tiering or a la carte offerings.”