Bill Puts Onus on FCC

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Washington— The Federal Communications Commission would be required to regulate pay-TV providers for indecent content under terms of a House bill introduced last Thursday that has probably no chance of becoming law this year.

The bill would create three options for cable and satellite TV providers under an annual election system enforced by the FCC, which today has indecency authority over radio and TV broadcasters but not subscription video providers.

The Family Choice Act was unveiled by Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), with support from the Parents Television Council, Consumers Union, and Concerned Women for America — groups that constantly gripe about cable content, pricing and packaging.

Under one option, the Lipinski-Osborne bill would require a cable operator not to air indecent content on expanded basic from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the same time period when the FCC bans indecent content over the airwaves. The bill’s text was unclear as to whether the FCC could fine a cable operator or programmer for a violation.

The second option would allow subscribers to block any expanded-basic channel and receive a monthly bill credit equal to the monthly per-subscriber license fee that the distributor pays to the program supplier.

The third option would require offering consumers a family tier that, based on the bill’s definition of that tier, would probably require inclusion of ESPN. Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable have been criticized for rolling out family tiers that do not include ESPN.

In a statement, Lipinski said his purpose was to provide parents with more programming options: “This legislation will empower parents by giving them real choices for family-friendly programming. And it does so without imposing a single, one-size-fits-all mandate on providers.”

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has opposed the regulation of cable content and the courts have resisted grafting broadcast indecency rules onto subscription video services, including pornographic content offered by cable operators.

“We remain opposed to unnecessary government regulation of the pricing and packaging of video services, which most studies show would diminish diversity in programming and result in higher prices for fewer channels,” said Rob Stoddard, the NCTA’s senior vice president of communications.

Consumers Union senior analyst Jeannine Kenney said the House bill would offer “consumers the promise of more choice of what channels come into their homes and greater control over their cable bills.”

It’s unlikely the House would consider a controversial cable-indecency bill this late in an election year and so soon after enacting a bill that raised broadcast indecency maximum fines from $32,500 to $325,000. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said last Thursday that he was “not going to take up indecency legislation here in the committee again this year.”

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