Honey, I Blew Up the TV Ratings

As advertised, the cable industry has launched a new public-service campaign, "Take Control, It's Easy," to help viewers control access to questionable content. The campaign will also include making the on-screen TV rating bigger and more ubiquitous.

The general thrust of the campaign, unveiled at a National Cable & Telecommunications Association press conference in Washington, is that the combination of digital boxes, analog boxes, V-chip-equipped sets, and free blocking technology for anyone who asks for it, provides that control today if subscribers can be better educated about the power they already have.

Starting June 1, the on-screen TV rating will be "dramatically" larger, and will be inserted after every commercial break.

In the wake of the indecency crackdown on broadcast and the suggestion that basic cable is approaching a similar lifeline status, cable has been under pressure, particularly from Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, to give viewers more control over content, at one point threatening to legislate if it doesn't.

For his part, Stevens responded to the initiative by saying it was fine, so far as it went.

“I think it is a step in the right direction," said the Senator. "It shows they’re thinking about the issues we’ve raised. I agree with Commissioner Martin, though, I don’t think it quite goes far enough. But, it is a reasonable reaction so far,” said Stevens. “I give Kyle McSlarrow a lot of credit for trying to bring the industry around to looking at the criticism and what he’s done would have been unheard of a year ago. So, it’s a very, very good step in the right direction.”

When a reporter pointed out that ongoing pressure, plus Senator Steven's suggestion again Tuesday that parental controls might not be enough. NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow replied that the effort was beginning and not an end, and that it was not to appease anybody. "This is not a bargaining session, we believe it is the right thing to do."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin applauded the initiative, but it was the sound of one hand clapping, with the Chairman saying he was looking for more than simply more info.

"I always support providing parents with additional information," said Martin, "but I think the cable industry needs to do more to address parents legitimate concerns. I continue to believe the cable industry should offer a family tier or offer programing in a more a la carte manner."
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts agreed that having the controls was not enough. "They need to know they are available and how to use them," he said. Roberts called the parental control function "a great business opportunity,"  saying it gives viewers more customized control and helps differentiate cable from the competition.

When asked why subscribers should have to pay for the channels they want to block rather than just being able to choose the channels they want (an a la carte model), Roberts, McSlarrow, and Discovery President Judith McHale all agreed that the cable business, including niche networks, is not sustainable on an a la carte model. Roberts also pointed out that while you may want to block a channel for your child, you may not want to block it for yourself.

Rep. Ed Markey, who a driving force behind the V-chip, also praised the effort as a first step,
“Today the cable industry will take an important step to help parents control their family TV viewing," he told B&C.  "I have always felt that if cable companies spent the same time promoting efforts to educate parents about how to monitor their family TV viewing as they do on their own programs then every parent in America would be well-informed about how to protect their children from violent an inappropriate programming. 
"The planned cable public service announcements and improved TV ratings are a great first step in assisting parents across the country who are concerned about what their children watch on TV.”

House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a driving force behind a bill to up FCC indecency fines, was another of the "first steppers," saying: “The cable industry’s ‘Take Control’ public service campaign is a step in the right direction.  We are united in our efforts to help educate parents through improved ratings and parental controls.”

Senator Sam Brownback, another major indecency foe and author of a similar bill in the Senate, went even further. He applauded the initiative, but his was a two-handed clap. “This proposal will empower parents to make good choices for their families without the need for government intervention," he said.

“For a long time I have been deeply concerned about the content on television and its impact on children, which is why I introduced legislation last year that would increase the current fines for broadcasters that violate decency standards," said Brownback. "During consideration of my bill, an amendment that would apply these standards to cable was rightfully defeated.  However, even though I believe that a subscription service such as cable or satellite is legally different from over-the-air broadcast television, the cable industry still bears its share of responsibility.”

Brent Bozell, head of the Parent's Television Counsel and a big advocate for a la carte, called the initiative a $250 million sham," adding: “In an effort to protect their billion-dollar empires, the cable industry is spending tens of millions of dollars on a red herring like the V-Chip. Instead, the industry should provide the ability for consumers to pick and choose – and to pay for – only those cable networks that subscribers want."

The new campaign, announced Wednesday in Washington, also will include:

1. A new $250 million PSA campaign by cable networks and operators in all daypart educating viewers about their parental control powers.

2. A partnership with Best Buy and Circuit City to put parental control information in retail stores.

3. NCTA will partner with the PTA on 100 local "Control Your TV" events to give subs hand-on access to parental-control information.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.