Lawmakers Prefer Family Tier

May 2, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Key federal regulators last week politely panned the cable industry’s new campaign promoting program-blocking technology, then promptly introduced legislation that would force cable and satellite operators to provide family-friendly programming tiers.

“I don’t think it quite goes far enough,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, of the cable industry’s renewed commitment to promoting blocking technology. “It is a step in the right direction.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said: “I always support providing parents with additional information, but I think the cable industry needs to do more to address parents’ legitimate concerns. I continue to believe the cable industry should offer a family tier or offer programming in a more a la carte manner.”

Added Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who sponsored the family tiering bill: “Parents who do not want their children to watch violent, obscene or sexually explicit programming should be able to choose a tier of programming appropriate for them.”

Under one of the cable industry campaign’s key initiatives unveiled last week, industry leaders have vowed to promote blocking technology with public service announcements valued at more than $250 million in the next year. They also pledged to sponsor 100 events in local markets to educate consumers about their options. In addition, they said they plan to make program ratings icons larger on their programs and include them more frequently throughout shows.

“The cable industry shares the concerns of many parents who want to guard against TV content they feel may be inappropriate for their children,” said Kyle McSlarrow, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO.

But cable’s critics, led by Sen. Stevens, have been urging the industry to take more dramatic steps, including creating family-friendly programming tiers.

At a briefing last week to announce the new industry initiative, Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman and CEO, said retiering would undermine the economic model that has spurred the creation of many cable networks.

“Family-friendly differs from family to family,” added Judith McHale, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. “How do you define `family-friendly’?”

Now Sen. Wyden is attempting to force the tiering issue with legislation requiring cable TV and satellite operators to heed the call.

“The key here is to guarantee that parents will have adequate viewing options for their kids without imposing federal regulation on all paid content provided on satellite and cable,” Sen. Wyden said.

Brian Dietz, an NCTA spokesman, said a Federal Communications Commission study last year concluded that retiering would result in higher prices and fewer program options for viewers.

“We believe providing parents with the easy-to-use tools to manage their home viewing is a much better alternative than government regulation,” Mr. Dietz said.

As for the criticisms offered by Sen. Stevens and FCC Chairman Martin, Mr. Dietz said: “This is an ongoing dialogue with members of Congress and other policymakers, and we will continue to listen to the concerns that have been expressed.”

Added NCTA’s Mr. McSlarrow, “We didn’t make this announcement predicated on any response on Capitol Hill. We made this announcement because we thought it’s the right thing to do.”

Softening the sting of the negative reviews somewhat were supportive remarks from other lawmakers, particularly in the House, where leaders have resisted calls to subject cable and satellite to the same indecency regulations broadcasters face.

“This [NCTA’s campaign] is a positive development, and I commend the industry’s efforts to further educate parents,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

“Cable’s substantial investment is a giant step forward in the broadcast decency debate,” added House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Giving the NCTA campaign particularly negative reviews was the watchdog Parents Television Council, the group responsible for creating much of the commotion about broadcast indecency last year.

“This $250 million sham is being foisted on American consumers by the cable industry with the sole purpose of shirking responsibility for its product,” PTC President L. Brent Bozell said in a statement.

“In an effort to protect their billion-dollar empires, the cable industry is spending tens of millions of dollars on a red herring like the v-chip,” Mr. Bozell continued. “Instead, the industry should provide the ability for consumers to pick and choose-and to pay for-only those cable networks that subscribers want, rather than forcing consumers to pay for channels they don’t want. And if the cable industry won’t allow that to happen, they should be forced to abide by the very same indecency guidelines which govern network broadcasters.”