Comcast, Time Warner Eyeing Family Tier?

In a shift pregnant with meaning, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable are in a family way.

In an apparent effort to address the cable indecency concerns of Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, the two MSOs are exploring whether to create a family-programming tier free of racy channels like MTV: Music Television that have inflamed religious and family groups, according to sources with direct knowledge of the plans. The sources would not speak on the record.

The companies have not made decisions about when to roll out the tier, how to price it and the number of channels to include, the sources said. They would not say whether the move was an attempt to resolve indecency problems with Martin while their $17.6 billion deal to acquire bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp. is pending at the agency.

A Martin aide said he would not comment at this time.

Martin has voiced supported for three systems for dealing with indecency: voluntary family tiers, federal indecency regulation of the basic and expanded-basic tiers and the sale of cable channels on an individual, a la carte basis.

Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the Parents Television Council, said a family tier was "a step in the right direction, but it doesn't solve the fundamental problem." The PTC, he added, wants cable customers to buy channels individually in order to keep unwanted channels from entering the home.

ESPN spokeswoman Catherine Brett, speaking for corporate parent The Walt Disney Co., said a report Wednesday in USA Today that Disney had "tentatively signed off" on the family tier was inaccurate.

"This report is erroneous. We have not been contacted by Comcast and Time Warner with respect to any tiering proposal," Brett said. "We have existing distribution agreements with both companies covering all of our networks, and we fully expect those commitments to be fulfilled."

One source indicated that the evaluation of a family tier involved more than Comcast and Time Warner, and the source did not rule out support for indecency regulation of basic and expanded basic in lieu of a family tier.