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Initiative Touts Existing Controls

Jan 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

A new industry wide initiative to promote the current TV ratings system and existing parental control technology appears to have won the industry some good will from leading lawmakers after Senate Commerce Committee hearings on indecency last week-but not enough to derail legislation that aims to beef up indecency fines for broadcasters.

“I don’t think the initiatives that we’ve got out here deal with the question of intentional violation, in spite of all the volunteer changes made,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the committee. “Those who intentionally try to get around the law ought to be penalized and ought to be fined.”

At the same time, the lawmaker appeared content to give the cable and satellite TV industries at least a temporary legislative pass to see how their new family-friendly programming tiers fare.

“The hearing on balance was good news for cable [and satellite],” financial firm Stifel Nicolaus said in a statement.

Sen. Stevens told reporters that he thought a provision in legislation already approved by the House of Representatives to raise the cap on fines for broadcast indecency from $32,500 to $500,000 was “excessive.” Yet the lawmaker vowed to move an indecency bill in the Senate this year.

“We’re trying to find a way to balance this out and accomplish the goal we all want to do, and that’s increase the fines and increase the effectiveness of the control the FCC has,” the senator said.

During the hearings, Sens. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and George Allen, R-Va., expressed serious doubts about the prospects for the cable family tiers that have been unveiled thus far, because the tiers don’t include sports networks.

“It almost seems like an invitation to an unmarketable package,” Sen. Rockefeller said.

David Cohen, Comcast executive VP, testified that his company left ESPN out of its family tier because the sports network includes some non-sports programming such as “Tilt”-a drama about gamblers-that might be considered inappropriate for some kids. In addition, Mr. Cohen told reporters that Comcast had done no market research to gauge the potential for its 16-channel family tier, which is supposed to roll out this year.

“The study we’ll do is the take rate,” Mr. Cohen said.

Also during the hearings, Charlie Ergen, chairman and CEO of EchoStar Communications, said his Dish Network’s family tier would include about 40 channels for $19.99 a month, compared to the 15 channels or so offered by the cable TV companies that have unveiled offerings thus far.

“This will be the most robust family tier in America,” Mr. Ergen said.

Under the new industrywide promotional initiative, broadcasters, cable and satellite TV operators are supposed to coordinate an effort to promote the v-chip and other blocking technologies with public service announcements created by the Ad Council.

The cost of creating the PSAs and the value of time devoted to running them for a year-and-a-half could be valued at up to $300 million, according to the partners in the enterprise.

Under the new commitment, TV ratings must appear at the beginning of all shows from the cooperating entities and at the end of each commercial break within shows.

In addition, use of the blocking technologies will be promoted when consumers buy TV sets and when cable and satellite services are installed.

On still another front, the industry vowed to provide religious and advocacy groups with educational information on the use of blocking technologies.

“We present a common-sense plan that will convey to American parents that they have, right now, all the weaponry they need to control all the TV programming that enters their home,” said Jack Valenti, the former chief of the Motion Picture Association of America, who outlined the plan during the Senate indecency hearings.

Mr. Valenti told TelevisionWeek that indecency legislation can never empower parents to protect their children from exposure to all programming to which they might object, because much of the programming that might concern them isn’t legally defined as indecent.

“If the object is to allow parents to block programming they don’t want their children to watch, this is the only way to go,” Mr. Valenti said.

Backers of the new initiative include the Big 4 TV networks, DirecTV, EchoStar Communications, the Ad Council, the MPAA, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, Viacom and Time Warner.