TV United to Skirt Legislation

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Representatives of the broadcast, cable and satellite TV industries were scrambling at the close of last week to work out a major industrywide agreement to promote the existing system of TV content ratings and technologies that enable parents to control what programming comes into their homes.

Sources said the industry wants to forge a final deal on the new public service announcement campaign by Jan. 19-when the Senate Commerce Committee is slated to hold hearings on pending legislation that cracks down on indecent programming.

The industry is also hoping that the new initiative-combined with recent announcements that some major multiple system operators are launching family-friendly programming tiers-will take some of the steam out of the campaign to legislate on the subject.

Industry officials were declining comment on the plan last week, on grounds that a deal was still being negotiated.

But late last year, Jack Valenti, the former chief of the Motion Picture Association of America who is spearheading the industry effort, told reporters that a major thrust of the campaign will be to promote what he said was the “close resemblance” between the existing TV ratings system-with its TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-MA-to the movie system’s G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17.

“What we’re trying to do is make people understand the resemblance,” Mr. Valenti said.

In addition, Mr. Valenti said the industry plans to promote the idea that the v-chip and existing cable and satellite blocking technologies give consumers “all the command they choose over what they want to see or not see.”

Sources last week said representatives of the Ad Council and the Consumer Electronics Association were also discussing possible commitments to the campaign. The sources said CEA’s role would be to promote the v-chip and blocking technologies when consumers buy TV sets in retail stores.

The Jan. 19 Senate hearing is important in part because it will provide the cable TV industry with its first public feedback from leading lawmakers on recent industry commitments to offer family-friendly programming tiers.

Among the cable TV companies that had officially announced plans to offer the new tiers as of deadline last week were Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications.

One key cable TV industry insider last week predicted that the new tiers would satisfy a lust to legislate, even though few consumers may ultimately choose to subscribe to tiers that don’t includemany of cable’s top news and entertainment programming.

“If [lawmakers] get a response, they’re going to claim victory and leave,” the source said.

But other industry sources are concerned that the tiers, spurred largely by political considerations, may fail miserably in the marketplace, winning the cable industry only a temporary stay from legislation.

“The real question is whether it will be enough to mollify the regulators and legislators and for how long,” said David Kaut, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus, a firm that represents major phone companies.

Added Chris Stern, an analyst for Medley Global Advisors, “These are relatively unattractive options for most consumers, but you don’t know how valuable they will be to people who care about these cultural issues.”

Of potential concern to the cable TV industry is that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told reporters late last year that “how the American family people respond” to the new tiers would be important determining whether legislation is still needed.

The watchdog Parents Television Council, the group that has stirred up much of the fuss about off-color programming on TV, has panned the tiers.

“The family tier is one [cable TV operators] have designed to fail,” said Dan Isett, PTC director of corporate and government affairs.

Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, responded: “The move by some cable operators to launch family tiers provides parents with another option for developing a television viewing schedule that best meets their families’ needs and comes in addition to the easy-to-use parental control features that already exist, plus other tools that the cable industry has been promoting for the past several years.”