Barton: Cable Indecency Law Coming

For the second time in a month, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has announced that he expects that the cable industry will need to comply with broadcast-indecency rules in the near future.

“It’s not something we’re going to do right away, but it’s an issue that’s time has come, in my opinion,” Barton said in comments Tuesday to the American Cable Association.

Cable programming is exempt from Federal Communications Commission rules that generally bar obscene words and steamy sex scenes from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. -- a period when children are expected to be in the TV audience in large numbers.

“I think we’re approaching the time where whatever we apply to the broadcasters in some way -- voluntarily or involuntarily -- is going to be applied to cable,” Barton said. “I know that causes some of you folks heartburn, and it probably should. But you deserve to hear the truth from the chairman of the committee.”

The cable industry has said that applying broadcast-indecency rules to cable operators would raise serious First Amendment issues because giving cable subscribers the option to block channels inflicts less harm on protected speech than a total ban applicable for two-thirds of the broadcast day.

Courts have upheld broadcast-indecency rules because broadcasting is pervasive and can be viewed by anyone with an off-air antenna. Cable programming, in contrast, has to be purchased, and set-tops can be used to block channels or unlock scrambled services.

Barton has made the point that because cable and satellite are viewed in more than 90 percent of U.S. homes, “most Americans don’t differentiate between over-the-air and cable or satellite.”

Barton went public with his predictions about cable-indecency regulation for the first time last month at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas.

In March, Sen. John Breaux (R-La.) attempted to apply broadcast-indecency rules to cable and direct-broadcast satellite until 85% of TV homes were using blocking technology or had the technology but declined to use it. Breaux’s attempt fell one vote short in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Senate indecency legislation includes a provision sponsored by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) that could result in banning violent movies and dramas on basic and expanded-basic cable until after 10 p.m.