Washington— Blocking is chockablock with political peril.
With almost a sense of the inevitable in his voice, Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner last Monday warned that expecting parents to master remotes and digital set-tops to block channels, while the ideal solution, may not satisfy the public or regulators.
“If we can’t communicate the power that our consumers have to them, then we are going to have to confront other ways to solving what is more than just a political problem,” Willner said.
“This is a social problem and this is a consumer problem that people want solved for them and we are going to have to figure out ways to do that, whether it’s accepting indecency standards on cable networks or creating various family tiers.”
Willner’s comments before the Cable Television Public Affairs Association set off a strong reaction from Debra Lee, president and COO of Black Entertainment Television, who balked at accepting broadcast regulation or family friendly tiers.
“Well, we already have [a family friendly tier]: It’s 500 channels and you pick and choose,” Lee said. “It’s not as simple as it sounds.”
Although Lee said BET operates as if it were governed by broadcast indecency standards, critics of cable have complained that BET music videos have gone too far in terms of sexual suggestiveness.
Indecency was a hot topic among the other panelists at the CTPAA Forum, including George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports; Patrick Esser, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Cox Communications Inc.; and Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO at Court TV.
That indecency would dominate wasn’t a surprise because the week before, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association announced a $250 million ad campaign to educate parents about blocking technology, which major MSOs have promised to supply for free to parents lacking them today.
The NCTA is hopes parental controls will cause the indecency issue to subside. Reviews of cable’s initiative were mixed, but it seemed that somewhat lukewarm appraisals by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and FCC chairman Kevin Martin overshadowed positive responses from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Il.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.)
SCHLEIFF CITES TIMING
In a statement, Martin called on cable to offer a family friendly tier and a la carte options. Schleiff said he found Martin’s reaction “inappropriate in terms of timing,” given cable’s obvious attempt to put forward a genuine response to indecency concerns. He said content regulation of cable would invoke “the law of unintended consequences,” comparing it to the market distortions wrought by retransmission consent that few expected.
Broadcast regulation would mean networks on expanded basic would have to ban nudity and profanity until after 10 p.m., a form of self-censorship that would fall on network owners.
In the context of forming new tiers, MSOs and networks would likely need to figure out together which channels to toss into the family package.
Cable might not have much time to take voluntary action. Two weeks ago, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or.) introduced a bill that would, after one year, fine a cable or satellite company $500,000 per day for failing to provide a “child-friendly” tier that includes at least 15 channels.
WHAT GOES IN TIER?
More so than the others, Lee complained that a family friendly tier was subjective and unworkable.
“Does a family tier include African-American programming? Does it include Hispanic programming? Does it include MTV? I have a 15-year-old son. He watches MTV. So in my family, that’s family-tier programming,” said Lee, one of cable’s most prominent African-American female executives.
Lee said she made the same point about the family tier being a fuzzy concept to FCC chairman Martin, who asked cable to create a kids-safe zone in a January 2003 speech to broadcasting executives.
“When I asked Kevin Martin that question, he said, 'Well, I’m not going to define it. I expect the cable industry to define it,’ ” she said.
On Tuesday, FCC member Jonathan Adelstein clearly distanced himself from officials who have questioned the efficacy of blocking.
Instead, Adelstein offered unalloyed support for cable’s effort to energize parents to take command of the TV.
“It’s especially critical that the cable industry self-regulate, that we encourage those efforts, and that we encourage together parents to take control of their own televisions, because, after all, the government really can’t substitute for parents,” Adelstein said, adding that courts were unlikely to accept content regulation of cable in the face of effective blocking tools.
Adelstein called the $250 million ad campaign “fantastic,” saying the funding and other awareness efforts by cable are “great steps in the right direction.”
Bodenheimer repeated the view of his parent company, The Walt Disney Co., that the application of broadcast indecency rules to expanded basic, if it comes to that, would wreak less havoc on the industry than tiering mandates.
“As this issue has continued to grow, we thought it was not defensible to continue to apply an inconsistent standard across cable and broadcast,” Bodenheimer said, adding that many consumers don’t distinguish between broadcast and cable networks.
“You just have a big dial of anywhere from 60 to 120 channels and you go up and down. There’s no markings, there’s no distinctions. It’s just one channel after another.”
ESSER: PARENTS PLAY PART
To some extent, Esser agreed with Lee on family friendly tiers, arguing that parents had to decide the suitability of programming for their children.
But he also embraced Willner’s point that cable might not be able to withstand political forces in Washington. He indicated that cable might have to yield on indecency regulation because cable has so many big issues before Congress and the FCC.