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Congress Mulls Decency Rules for Cable TV

By John P. Mello Jr.
Mar 3, 2005 8:30 AM PT

Comments by a powerful U.S. senator sent a shudder through the cable and satellite television communities this week.

Congress Mulls Decency Rules for Cable TV

Ted Stevens, the Alaskan Republican who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, reportedly told a group of broadcasters what must have sounded like sweet music to some of their ears: He wants to extend the rules for indecency that apply to the public airwaves to cable and satellite programming.

New Bill Needed

Last month, the House passed and sent to the Senate a bill to hike the penalties for violation of the Federal Communication Commission's indecency rules to US$500,000 from $32,000 as well as require the agency to hold license revocation 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 year that would have extended the broadcast indecency rules to cable.

"We want the indecency bill to stay as it is," Lara Mahaney, a spokesperson for the Parents Television Council (PTC) in Los Angeles, told TechNewsWorld. "If they're going to do cable decency legislation, it's got to be separate from the current legislation that's out there."

V-Chip Not Enough

In a statement issued after Stevens' remarks at a National Association of Broadcasters forum, PTC President L. Brent Bozell said:

"We support cable consumer choice as the best way to protect families from content they find offensive or that may be indecent and to protect free speech concerns. But if the cable operators refuse to allow consumer choice, then we believe that any cable network which is included in the basic or expanded basic tiers should be forced to comply with the same decency standards as the broadcast networks."

Although parents concerned about the dosage of sex and profanity dumped into their homes by TV have the means to control what their children watch through the V-chip and by locking out channels in cable systems, Mahaney argued 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," she said. "That way, a family doesn't have to take something like MTV or FX -- some of the more objectionable channels with nasty content -- when all they want is the Disney Channel, CNN and sports."

"If that doesn't happen," she continued, "then we do recognize that something is going to have to happen to cable; it's going to have to be regulated in some way. It doesn't have to happen in the indecency bill. It needs to have a standalone cable bill."

First Amendment Objections

But for those intent on cleaning up cable, there may be some constitutional snags.

"[W]e believe any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendment objections and will oppose efforts to impose regulation on cable programming," Brian Dietz, vice president for communication for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

"As the U.S. Supreme Court has found," he continued, "the subscription nature of cable service, and the ability of cable customers to block unwanted programming through the use of tools offered by local cable systems, strongly differentiate cable from broadcasting, which is distributed free and unfiltered over the air."

Braden Cox, technology counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., explained to TechNewsWorld that the pillars of authority for regulators in this area have been scarcity of spectrum and pervasiveness -- neither of which apply to cable or satellite TV.

Moral Imperative

Courts have said that because there's a scarcity of broadcast spectrum, the FCC has the right to impose conditions on the granting of licenses to use that spectrum, Cox said.

That right, the courts have also ruled, is bolstered by the pervasiveness of broadcast content. "But when you have a subscription-based medium like cable, it's hard to say that something someone chooses to pay for is pervasive and needs government regulation," Cox said.

This latest jab at indecency on cable and satellite TV may be part of the moral 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're responding to what they perceive as a moral imperative from the public, which I don't think exists when the public is perfectly capable of taking care of itself."

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