Policy

Cracks in the Tier

1/27/2006 7:11 PM Eastern

Picture this: It’s primetime. You and the kids are channel surfing and find a male high school teacher preparing to show a science documentary to students. Instead, this TV character mistakenly launches a video portraying him and his wife having sex. And, this teacher is wearing a black bra, panties and fishnet tights.

That scenario, as described by the Parents Television Council, is not something parents might like a child to accidentally stumble upon. But this scene — from the Fox broadcast network’s animated series Family Guy — as well as other adult-targeted images and situations could well show up on screens of those families that subscribe to new family-programming tiers from Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications Inc.

Black Sheep of the Family: Broadcasting Indecency
Recent Federal Communications Commission fines for coarse content on television:
Decision Date: January 2004
Who: Young Broadcasting’s KRON, San Francisco.
Program: Morning show segment “Puppetry of the Penis.”
Fine: $27,500
Reason: Penis exposure on live TV at 8:25 a.m.
Decision date: September 2004
Who: 20 CBS owned-and-operated stations.
Program: 2004 Super Bowl halftime show (left).
Fine: $550,000
Reason: Singer Janet Jackson’s breast exposed.
Decision date: October 2004
Who: 25 Fox owned and operated stations, 144 Fox affiliates.
Program: Married By America
Fine: $1.2 million total; $7,000 per station.
Reason: Scenes where “party-goers lick[ed] whipped cream from strippers’ bodies in a sexually suggestive manner.”

Such family tiers were introduced in the last month under pressure from federal regulators, who wanted to give parents a collection of channels that would be a haven from sexual, excessively violent and profane content.

But the same government that is trying to reduce indecency also mandates that these cable systems carry the programs of over-the-air broadcast networks, as part of their basic service — including family tiers. These are channels that, over time, have carried some of the most memorably indecent programming, such as the partially bared chest of singer Janet Jackson during Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 — the event that touched off the whole Congressional debate that’s been roiling for almost two years.

Subscribers to the new family tiers also might be shocked by what they happen upon while watching Spanish-language broadcast networks such as Univision, which conservative groups like the PTC say include a smorgasbord of graphic violence and gratuitous sexual content.

The combination could sabotage cable’s efforts to keep Congress or the Federal Communications Commission from calling for further regulation of content on multichannel-video services, executives of major cable-system operators say in private. The biggest fear: That they’ll mandate that each channel a subscriber pays for be offered on an a la carte basis — a prospect that Oxygen Network chief executive Geraldine Laybourne has said would undo the economic model that has allowed scores of new channels to flourish in cable over the past two decades (“5:4,’’ Dec. 19, 2005, page 21).

Indeed, viewers who really care about the content on their screens will just not be interested in signing up for the new packages of “safe” programming, said Syracuse University professor of pop culture Robert Thompson.

“There’s no way that [anyone] can come up with a tier that in any meaningful way accomplishes what it’s supposed to accomplish, because you’d have to include the broadcast networks,” Thompson said. “Fox airs American Idol, which is the most family friendly show on television, but it also airs other shows that are deliriously sleazy.”

Cable operators at this point don’t all agree this will be a stumbling block, though.

“We do not anticipate that the inclusion of local broadcast channels will hinder our ability to sell the family tier,” said Cox senior vice president of programming Bob Wilson in a statement to Multichannel News. “The family tier was intended to be another option consumer have to choose, not an exclusive solution unto itself.”

OBJECTIONABLE FARE

So far, Cox, Time Warner Cable and Comcast have set the indecency standards for their respective family tiers to exclude virtually all content with a TV rating higher than G. Also excluded: networks that carry live programming.

By using such strict definitions, operators hope to eliminate programming that features overt sexual situations and extreme violence.

As such, most networks chosen for family tiers carry mostly kid-oriented and educational fare. Content from Nickelodeon, The Weather Channel, CNN Headline News, The Science Channel, Discovery Kids, Disney Channel, Do It Yourself Network, Fit TV, Food Network, Home & Garden Television, Nick Games & Sports, The Weather Channel and Toon Disney abounds.

Other networks — like National Geographic Channel, which is part of Comcast and Cox’s family-tier packages — do offer some TV-PG programming. Nat Geo’s Jan. 29 special Relentless Enemies, for instance, shows several incidents of a pride of lions in the wild subduing, killing and eating buffalo — in graphic detail.

“There’s some content on that channel that is clearly disturbing for young children, like cheetahs tearing apart zebras,’’ Thompson said. “But that’s not sex or swearing, and that’s what it’s all about.’’

FCC COMPLAINTS

As of this past September, 319 of the 720 complaints the Federal Communications Commission received about content from television and radio stemmed from broadcast television shows, according to the commission’s Web site.

Cable shows generated 84 complaints, with radio programming making up the rest of the tally. The commission has not released a list of the shows receiving complaints.

But episodes from popular broadcast skeins like Family Guy, NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and ABC’s George Lopez have been flagged over the past year by the PTC as offering “objectionable’’ programming.

Then there’s Spanish-language network Univision, which features often titillating soap-operas and often salacious talk shows. Distributed mostly via broadcast stations, Univision is widely carried on basic-cable tiers — and thus, by extension, the new “family” tiers.

During a recent [January] installment of Univision’s popular talk show Cristina, two dwarves swayed suggestively in their skivvies. One of the dancers leered directly at the camera, licked his fingers and simulated slapping a woman’s bottom.

“I would hardly call [Univision] family friendly,” said PTC senior director of programs Melissa Caldwell. “[They air] some fairly raunchy shows like [variety show] Sabado Gigante [with] a lot of innuendo, a lot of scantily dressed women,” said Caldwell.

A report from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation further indicates that sexual images are pervasive across free TV and cable.

The report, Sex on TV 4, conducted last November, concluded that 70% of all shows from broadcast networks like NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and PBS, as well as cable networks Lifetime, Turner Network Television, USA Network and Home Box Office, include some sexual content, ranging from implied sexual acts, to discussions of oral sex to kissing and fondling. In primetime, that level increases to 77%, according to the report.

But unlike the broadcast networks, Lifetime, HBO, TNT and USA are not available on the family tier.

Disney & ESPN Networks affiliate sales and marketing president Sean Bratches said broadcast network shows like Fox’s The Simpsons and ABC’s Desperate Housewives “are much more risqué” than anything that cable has aggregated on the family tiers.

Broadcast content “is not as pure as it may seem,” said Bratches, last week at a “Changing Face of Cable” panel session last week during the National Association of Television Programming Executives conference. “There’s a lot of content on [the] broadcast tier that is more aggressive’’ than on the channels cable companies have chosen for family tiers.

Cox, Comcast and Time Warner executives say they don’t expect the rules mandating that they must carry these broadcast channels on their basic tiers of service to be eliminated any time soon. Instead, executives say they’ll leave decisions regarding broadcast decency standards up to the FCC.

Luis Clemens contributed to this report.

October