Comments by a powerful U.S. senator sent a shudder through the cable andsatellite television communities this week.
Ted Stevens, the Alaskan Republican who heads the SenateCommerce Committee, reportedly told a group of broadcasters what must have sounded likesweet music to some of their ears: He wants to extend the rules forindecency that apply to the public airwaves to cable and satelliteprogramming.
New Bill Needed
Last month, the House passed and sent to the Senate a bill to hike thepenalties for violation of the Federal Communication Commission’s indecencyrules to US$500,000 from $32,000 as well as require the agency to hold licenserevocation hearings after three violations of the rules by an offender.
Stevens isn’t likely to incorporate his extension ideas into that bill,though, since he voted against an amendment to a fine-hike measure last yearthat would have extended the broadcast indecency rules to cable.
“We want the indecency bill to stay as it is,” Lara Mahaney, a spokespersonfor the Parents Television Council (PTC) in Los Angeles, told TechNewsWorld.”If they’re going to do cable decency legislation, it’s got to be separatefrom the current legislation that’s out there.”
V-Chip Not Enough
In a statement issued after Stevens’ remarks at a National Association ofBroadcasters forum, PTC President L. Brent Bozell said:
“We support cable consumer choice as the best way to protect families fromcontent they find offensive or that may be indecent and to protect freespeech concerns. But if the cable operators refuse to allow consumer choice,then we believe that any cable network which is included in the basic orexpanded basic tiers should be forced to comply with the same decencystandards as the broadcast networks.”
Although parents concerned about the dosage of sex and profanity dumped intotheir homes by TV have the means to control what their children watchthrough the V-chip and by locking out channels in cable systems, Mahaneyargued that cable viewers need more choice.
“Why should people pay for something they have to block?” she asked.
More Choice Needed
“There should be consumer cable choice, where you have a family tier,” shesaid. “That way, a family doesn’t have to take something like MTV orFX — some of the more objectionable channels with nasty content — when allthey want is the Disney Channel, CNN and sports.”
“If that doesn’t happen,” she continued, “then we do recognize thatsomething is going to have to happen to cable; it’s going to have to beregulated in some way. It doesn’t have to happen in the indecency bill. Itneeds to have a standalone cable bill.”
First Amendment Objections
But for those intent on cleaning up cable, there may be some constitutionalsnags.
“[W]e believe any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendmentobjections and will oppose efforts to impose regulation on cableprogramming,” Brian Dietz, vice president for communication for the NationalCable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) in Washington, D.C., said in astatement.
“As the U.S. Supreme Court has found,” he continued, “the subscriptionnature of cable service, and the ability of cable customers to blockunwanted programming through the use of tools offered by local cablesystems, strongly differentiate cable from broadcasting, which isdistributed free and unfiltered over the air.”
Braden Cox, technology counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute inWashington, D.C., explained to TechNewsWorld that the pillars of authorityfor regulators in this area have been scarcity of spectrum andpervasiveness — neither of which apply to cable or satellite TV.
Courts have said that because there’s a scarcity of broadcast spectrum, theFCC has the right to impose conditions on the granting of licenses to usethat spectrum, Cox said.
That right, the courts have also ruled, is bolstered by the pervasiveness ofbroadcast content. “But when you have a subscription-based medium likecable, it’s hard to say that something someone chooses to pay for ispervasive and needs government regulation,” Cox said.
This latest jab at indecency on cable and satellite TV may be part of themoral fallout from last year’s presidential election, according to Judith A.Endejan, a communications attorney with Graham & Dunn PC in Seattle,Washington.
“Congress is overreacting,” she told TechNewsWorld. “They’reresponding to what they perceive as a moral imperative from the public,which I don’t think exists when the public is perfectly capable of takingcare of itself.”