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Martin Pushes Self-Control

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin promised lawmakers last week he will pressure TV execs to clean up programming themselves, rather than relying on mounting government fines to scrub sexual scenes and crass language from prime time.

True to his pledge, the next day, Martin dissed the cable industry's new PR campaign—it has promised $250 million in airtime—promoting channel-blocking technology.

“The cable industry needs to do more to address legislative concerns,” Martin said in a statement issued after the National Cable and Telecommunications Association unveiled the campaign at a Washington press conference. “I continue to believe the cable industry should offer a family tier or offer programming in a more à la carte manner.”

Washington's newfound appreciation for “voluntary” efforts to shield children from inappropriate programming comes as broadcasters gear up for legal battles against the government's anti-indecency efforts, and cable bristles at suggestions it should be brought under the FCC's indecency- enforcement regime.

Raise Consumer Awareness

To dampen enthusiasm for legislation that would sock cable operators with the same indecency restrictions as broadcasters, the cable industry is promoting a public-service campaign to raise consumer awareness of channel-blocking technology that allows parents to shield children from shows or channels they deem inappropriate.

Because the cable and satellite operators provide blocking capability to every subscriber, the Supreme Court has exempted them from the indecency fines broadcasters face.

Cable's free pass has been criticized by many in Congress, most notably by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens. He says the NCTA campaign should be only a first step. Late last week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced a bill to force cable and satellite operators to provide family-friendly programming tiers under threat of a $500,000-a-day fine.

Cable isn't ready to follow calls for additional measures. Operators are confident the high court has given them protection from new restrictions.

Operators have dug in their heels against à la carte programming, which would require selling channels individually rather than requiring subscribers to buy large channel packages. Without the guaranteed advertising base that channel bundling guarantees, operators say, the cost of each channel would rise so dramatically that few would subscribe.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, are gearing up for a legal challenge aimed at striking down indecency restrictions altogether. A united front on the ratings system could give them ammunition in that fight since they, too, could argue they have a blocking system that would be a less restrictive curb on speech than FCC indecency regs.

Use of V-Chip Ratings

V-chip ratings are now provided industrywide following NBC Universal's announcement last week that it will carry V-chip content descriptors for its shows (L for language, V for violence, etc.) in addition to the age-based ratings it already carries (TV-14, for example). Descriptors enable the chip to screen out various levels of content.

NBC had been the only network not to fully implement the V-chip ratings but says times have changed. Viewers have many more channels to sift through and want more control and information. Now that the ratings are carried by all networks, broadcasters could speak with one voice in a planned lawsuit against the indecency law, charging that the protections given to cable should apply to stations, too.

Martin said last week that channel blocking isn't enough, however. Broadcasters, he says, should provide at least one hour of family-friendly programming every night during prime time. Cable operators, on the other hand, should either sell a family-themed programming tier or reimburse subscribers for the cost of channels they block.

“Isn't that the best way to go?” asks Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FCC's budget. “Shouldn't this be one of the major issues you're pushing, rather than confrontation and massive fines?”

Wolf's reservations about fining broadcasters are a surprise, given that he was among the 391 House members who voted to boost the broadcast-indecency fines from $32,500 to $500,000.

As the legal battle over that vote looms, Wolf has been signaling that it is time for compromise: “It would seem to me you would get the most benefit for the nation, but also for the industry, if you aggressively push for a voluntary code.”