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Stevens Vows Cable-Indecency Crackdown

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee promised a showdown with the cable industry Tuesday, vowing to bring it under the same indecency restrictions as broadcasters.

To worry cable even more, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he’d also favor legislation that would require cable operators to carry several program streams from each digital-TV station as long as the channels provided “public-interest” programming such as news, weather and the “Boy and Girl Scouts.”

“I think we can put restrictions on cable. and I intend to tell them that,” Stevens said to an appreciative crowd of TV- and radio-station executives in Washington, D.C., for the National Association of Broadcasters; annual state leadership conference.

Stevens will get his chance to make his case directly to the cable operators in early April, when the National Cable & Telecommunications Association holds it annual convention.

NAB President Eddie Fritts liked the idea of indecency restrictions on cable, and suggested that broadcasters would be willing to do a package deal, perhaps as part of a larger telecommunications bill. With a package, broadcasters might accept higher penalties if new restrictions also applied to cable.

The package also would include a deadline for TV stations’ going all-digital and an obligation on cable operators to carry the multiple signals that digital technology allows them to offer.

Last week, new NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow insisted there is no reason for the government to reverse long-standing exemptions for cable given all the options subscribers have for blocking channels they don’t want to see. Cable also is dead-set against a carriage mandate that covers more than one programming stream per station.

Stevens called cable to task for airing programming that’s “worse, very much worse” than broadcasters.'

One recent cable show was so bad he took the rare--for him--step of turning off the show in disgust.

Stevens 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.

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 FCC fines and settlements and Congress is expected to pass even tougher penalties this year.

Stevens said he would like to build upon a House-passed bill by adding some kind of restrictions on cable.

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

Stevens argued that parents can’t be all-day monitors of their kids’ viewing, given that 70% of mothers with teenagers work.

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

“If we can force them to carry broadcasters’ signals, then I think we can tell them that the same level of [indecency] standards that apply to broadcasters should apply to cable.”

Stevens could attempt to apply indecency fines to cable or attempt a less intrusive alternative that would let parents buy channels one-by-one or “a la carte.”

Right now, cable operators sell channels only in bundles that contain racy channels some parents might not want to buy. He said he didn’t yet know which approach he’d try, but did use the shopping analogy to make his point. “If Haagen Daas is in the refrigerator, it might be too tempting to expect a teenager never to eat it. But if it never makes it into the shopping cart, the temptation won’t be there.”

Stevens did level e some criticism at broadcasters.

He complained about an episode of NBC's since-canceled Father of the Pride in which the main character talked about sex toys and masturbation.

“Now, why was that on TV at 8 o’clock? Now I’m not a prude and like to occasionally watch a show that crosses the line, but I don’t think children should.  We wonder why children are sexually active at a young age.”