FCCer's Family Plans Trade Tiers for Tears

1/26/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

Washington— Cable has received a new request from a key bureaucrat: Fortify its family ties with family-friendly tiers.

The debate over cable pricing and packaging has largely been about economics. But last week, Republican Federal Communications Commission member Kevin Martin moved the debate in a new direction.

In a speech last Wednesday to television executives in New Orleans, Martin called on cable and direct-broadcast satellite carriers to create programming packages that parents and children can enjoy without crashing into coarse and violent programming.

"I propose that these providers [cable and DBS] offer an exclusively family-friendly programming package as an expanded tier," Martin told the National Association of Television Program Executives convention.

And if new packaging isn't the answer, Martin advanced an à la carte scheme in which subscribers could nix inappropriate channels from a tier and expect cash reimbursement from the operator.

"Parents could then purchase additional channels on an individual basis. The combined result would enable parents to receive [and pay for] only that programming they are comfortable bringing into their home," Martin said.

As for broadcasters, Martin called for revival of the "Family Hour," which disappeared in 1983 as a result of a legal battle. Martin urged TV stations to set aside one hour of primetime programming — five days a week, starting at 8 p.m. EST — for families to view "with comfort, confidence and enthusiasm."

The cable industry has resisted the wide establishment of genre-based programming tiers. Many programming services demand carriage on the most widely penetrated tier to maximize subscriber and advertising revenue.

MSOs view tiers with dozens of channels as simple to price and market, and as stable platforms to nourish new programming services that would otherwise face long odds surviving in a mini-tier or an à la carte environment.

In the past, FCC chairman Michael Powell has questioned whether cable networks that thrive in a large tier environment could survive in an à la carte world.

Various cable networks declined to address Martin's proposal. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association released a statement that, while noting the "desirability of family-friendly programming,'" steered clear from embracing Martin's plan. The National Association of Broadcasters also would not comment on the Family Hour portion.

In his remarks, Martin hailed cable's vast portfolio of family programming, adding that a family-friendly tier "might include ABC Family, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Discovery [Channel], History Channel, National Geographic [Channel], CNN [Cable News Network], Fox News [Channel], Food Network, ESPN, C-SPAN, etc."

At no point did he identify by name programming networks he considered inappropriate for children.

Some FCC observers questioned the family-friendly purity of Martin's hypothetical tier, noting that news channels air stories on war, terrorism and health that might be too strong for children.

Sister's story

Martin's decision to go public with his concerns has its genesis within his own family, an aide said. His older sister refused to subscribe to cable when her four children were young because children's programming was bundled with mature content.

Martin spoke to that dynamic directly by lamenting that when parents "purchase the family-friendly programming, they are forced to buy much programming that is not as family-friendly."

Some who read Martin's speech sniped that he was cozying up politically to conservative allies of the Bush administration, who frequently target Hollywood over the content of films, TV programs and music lyrics.

"We were excited to hear what he had to say," said Lara Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs for the Parents Television Council, who attended Martin's speech. She endorsed additional family packaging by cable and DBS providers.

"It's another great idea. I think it creates a win-win for parents who are concerned about what their kids are going to see on TV," she said.

The PTC, headed by conservative commentator L. Brent Bozell III, has called for the resurrection of the Family Hour. Democratic presidential hopeful and Hollywood critic Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) serves on the PTC's advisory board.

DirecTV Inc., the No. 1 DBS carrier with 11 million subscribers, offered a family tier but discontinued it in February 2002.

"We clearly offer quite a lot of family programming. It is just no longer labeled as a family pack," said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer.

A spokesman for EchoStar Communications Corp., the No. 2 DBS provider with some 8 million subscribers, said the company's Dish Network service is family friendly and provided numerous "parental lock" features to protect children.

In his speech, Martin suggested his support for tiering was the result of research showing that the idea that technology — such as the V-chip and blocking mechanisms — as a panacea has not be realized.

"Few parents know about these technologies, and of those that do, fewer still can figure out how to make them work," Martin said.

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