Indecency Debate Broadens

Jun 12, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The watchdog Parents Television Council plans to ramp up its efforts against off-color cable TV programming-and extend its anti-indecency endeavor to cable and satellite-now that Congress has approved legislation that would raise the cap on broadcast indecency fines tenfold to $325,000-and broadcasters will be cheering PTC on.

“While [the approval of the broadcast indecency legislation] is a very good thing, it only deals with half of the problem,” said Dan Isett, PTC’s director of corporate and government affairs.

“If there’s going to be regulation, it ought to apply across all platforms-meaning cable, satellite and satellite radio,” added Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

According to PTC’s Mr. Isett, the legislation approved last week is at best a partial solution to what PTC sees as a problem with indecent programming because it applies only to broadcast radio and TV stations-not to programming delivered exclusively by cable or satellite.

Cable and satellite TV are exempt from Federal Communications Commission indecency prohibitions and fines.

PTC’s favored resolution would be for cable TV to offer its programming a la carte-giving consumers the right to choose and pay for only the cable TV programming they want in their homes.

“The next step is to allow people to make their own decisions about cable programming and end the subsidy of graphic content on cable,” Mr. Isett said in an interview.

NAB’s Mr. Wharton said the broadcast association has taken no position on a la carte.

But to jump-start PTC’s new effort, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last week introduced legislation aimed at encouraging cable to shift to a la carte. The senator said the legislation would benefit consumers by giving them real choice over their cable programming.

“Cable companies … give consumers all the choice of a North Korean election ballot,” Sen. McCain said.

In a statement, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association made clear its opposition.

“It is completely unnecessary for the federal government to disrupt a competitive marketplace and engage in the pricing and packaging of video services,” NCTA said. “Most studies show that a la carte will diminish diversity in programming and result in higher prices for fewer channels, hardly a positive result for consumers.”

Still, Mr. Isett said, there are a variety of ways to address off-color cable programming. He said that a la carte-which has been endorsed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate-is simply “the market-based solution to the problem.”

Mr. Wharton said the preference of broadcasters would be that nobody is subject to indecency rules. But if the federal government is going to have rules, the same regulations should apply to all players, he said.

The legislation, approved in a 379-35 vote in the House of Representatives last week, would raise the cap on FCC broadcast indecency fines from $32,500 to $325,000 per violation. It now goes to the White House, where President Bush has signaled support for the measure, which would help appeal to the GOP’s conservative base.

Critics had argued that the FCC’s maximum fine of $32,500 was too small to discourage broadcasters from airing indecent material.

Broadcasters warned that the tenfold increase would have a chilling effect on the industry.

“Particularly in smaller markets, a $325,000 fine could put stations out of business tomorrow,” Mr. Wharton said.