Cable: We’ll Block TV for Free

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The indecency debate has moved in so many crazy directions that the cable industry’s latest response might turn out to be a cure in search of a problem.

Last Tuesday, the top 10 cable companies agreed to provide free channel-blocking services to potentially millions of customers that want to protect children from seeing indecent programming.

The announcement came in a speech by National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs to the Cable Television Public Affairs Association Forum 2004 here.

The commitment, which also includes broader consumer-education elements, represented cable’s latest attempt to mollify Congress, regulators and parents about TV indecency in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast exposure, which was seen by millions of families.

Cable’s biggest problem isn’t with indecency. The industry is trying to defeat Senate legislation that could expose cable operators to large fines for airing violent programming at times when children are expected to be in the audience (between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.).

Just hours after the NCTA announcement, Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt disclosed that very few cable customers have actually called his company demanding per-channel blocking assistance.

“The answer is no, people aren’t champing at the bit,” Britt said.

Because Time Warner expects little demand for free blocking, costs to comply should be reasonable.

“In our case, in a number of our divisions, we are already giving the devices away free of charge,” he said.

“We had actually not told people here [in Washington, D.C.] that we were doing that before.”

Time Warner either traps channels from entering a home or issues an analog box with blocking capabilities.

The No. 2 MSO is considering issuing free digital boxes to customers who request blocking technology.

That move could represent a marketing opportunity to expand digital-tier penetration.

“We haven’t done that yet, but it might be,” Britt said.

Current law allows cable to charge for blocking services. Top NCTA members’ decision to provide free blocking would not apply to consumers that already have the technical means to do it themselves, including via set-top boxes and TV sets equipped with the V-chip.

“It’s something less than half the cable households may not have equipment today with which they could block unwanted programming,” Sachs told reporters after the speech.

Maybe the fact that consumers can obtain blocking for free will stimulate consumer demand.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, applauded cable’s move.

“Nobody thinks that cable consumers should be charged for blocking programming they find repugnant, and I commend the NCTA for agreeing to do it at no cost to customers. Decent people want to stop indecency from coming into their homes, and this will help,” Barton said in a statement.

Barton supports a family-friendly basic cable tier, free of indecent programming. If blocking efforts fail to quell voter concern about content, Barton has indicated interest in mandating a family-friendly tier.

REFUNDS NEEDED

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has argued that blocking is only part of the solution. The Senate Commerce Committee chairman, who held a cable rate hearing last Thursday, has called on cable to refund consumers the cost of channels they have blocked to prevent indecent programming from entering their homes.

That idea, Sachs said, was impractical and hard to administer. “It’s the customer, in their own home, that is blocking the programming. It would be very difficult to say the least to determine what people have watched, what they haven’t watched and to, in some way, rebate them something for that,” he said.

Britt called McCain’s plan just another version of a la carte and said he wouldn’t support it. “It’s a form of a la carte. It’s a different version of it,” he said after stating earlier that a la carte was “a perfectly horrible idea” that would kill off niche channels.

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