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Cable Under Attack

A showdown is brewing between Congress and the cable industry now that two top lawmakers are vowing to bring the industry under the same indecency restrictions as broadcasters.

“I think we can put restrictions on cable, and I intend to tell them that,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens told an appreciative crowd of TV and radio-station executives in Washington for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual state leadership conference last week.

Stevens' comments were echoed by his House counterpart, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Both men said their viewers, particularly children, do not differentiate between traditional broadcast channels and pay-TV channels when they scroll through program guides, and there is no reason for Washington to make that distinction either.

Edgier networks like FX and MTV could be forced to corral shows containing sex scenes, profanity and bathroom humor to late-night and early-morning hours, like broadcast TV stations do. Alternatively, cable could be forced to sell channels “a la carte” or one by one, so parents could pick and choose the programming they want coming into their homes. This presumably would apply to satellite radio as well, which is also exempt from indecency restrictions.

Broadcasters favor such a law

NAB President Eddie Fritts seemed thrilled by Stevens' ideas, because broadcasters would favor such a law, perhaps as part of a larger telecommunications bill. With a package, broadcasters might accept higher indecency penalties if the new restrictions also applied to cable. Such a package could also include a deadline for TV stations' going all-digital and an obligation for cable operators to carry broadcasters' digital signals.

Kyle McSlarrow, new president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), insists there is no reason to reverse long-standing indecency exemptions for cable, given the options subscribers have for blocking channels they don't want. McSlarrow also vows to fight any new cable-carriage mandate.

“Four-Letter Words as participles”

Stevens called cable to task for programming that's “worse, much worse” than broadcasters'. One recent show was so bad he took the rare step, for him, of turning it off in disgust. He would not identify the program but complained that the dialogue was riddled with “four-letter words as participles.”

The cable industry so far has been able to evade the type of federal limits on over-the-air stations faced by broadcasters. Stations can be fined if they carry indecent programming between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. A year-long crackdown has led to record-breaking fines against stations. Congress is expected to pass even tougher penalties this year.

With the help of federal courts, cable has repeatedly fended off restrictions on its content, even during the hours children are most likely to be watching, by arguing that First Amendment law won't permit restrictions on cable if parents have other options for shielding their kids from objectionable shows. For instance, parents have the option of using channel-blocking technology or simply not subscribing to pay-TV.

Stevens dismissed the notion that cable is constitutionally exempt from indecency restrictions, noting that the industry vainly fought a mandate to carry local analog TV signals on the same First Amendment grounds.

He could attempt to apply indecency fines to cable or try a less intrusive alternative that would let parents buy channels à la carte. “If we can force them to carry broadcasters' signals,” Stevens says, “then we can tell them that the same level of standards that apply to broadcasters should apply to cable.”