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Stevens: Less-Tough Talk on Cable Indecency

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is still trying to figure out how he wants to regulate edgy cable shows, and it's beginning to sound like his plan might not be so tough on pay TV, after all.

Responding to a reporter's question, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee said one option he's considering would simply require operators to better explain to customers how they can take advantage of existing channel-blocking technology and, perhaps, mandate operators' participation in a program ratings system.

Two weeks ago Stevens told broadcasters that cable shows like Comedy Central and MTV, should be bound some type of restriction on when they air, just as TV and radio stations are.

His comments generated fodder for nightly news as well as scoffs from First Amendment attorneys, who argued that Supreme Court rulings all but rule out indecency restrictions on pay-TV, a service subscribers invite into their homes.

Cable First Amendment protections don't extend to obscenity, however, and Stevens comments have no bearing on a separate government move to crack down on X-rated entertainment, including pay-per-view porn on cable and satellite.

We ought to find some way to say, 'Here is a block of channels, whether it’s delivered by broadband, by VoIP, by whatever it is, to a home, that is clear of the stuff you don’t want your children to see," he said.

"We're not saying you can’t, you know, you can buy anything you want, I don’t care how they package it. If you want to pay for, you have a right to buy it."

Pay-TV providers should have the responsibility to tell you when programs unsuitable for children are airing, he said. "I intend to try and level the playing field. I take the position that at the time the Supreme Court made its decision about cable, cable was just one of the ways for public access to television products. Today 85% of the television that is brought to American homes is brought by cable [and satellite] and I believe that the playing field should be leveled."

But rather than limiting racy fare to after 10 p.m. as stations must, Stevens suggested another option might be requiring cable to sell family-friendly tiers of programming.

Stevens said it would be fine with him if cable beat him to the punch and found some effective way to self-regulate.