FCC’s Martin Backs Cable Content Bill

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin last Thursday endorsed a bipartisan House bill that would force cable operators to create a family friendly programming tier, comply with existing federal indecency rules or rebate customers who have blocked channels in a tier.

None of the sponsoring lawmakers was a heavy hitter in Capitol Hill telecommunications-policy circles, meaning the effort probably is just a minor irritant that the cable industry needs to endure.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and religious and minority cable programmers attacked the legislation as harmful to niche programmers. They also said it’s unnecessary when cable consumers have easy access to set-top box and V-chip technologies that block entire channels and programs by rating.

The American Cable Association pointed out that most programming contracts do not allow operators to sell networks a la carte. “No multivideo programming distributor can address any of the concerns of the bill’s sponsors — pricing, flexibility, indecency, diversity, etc. — unless Congress focuses on existing laws that give programmers and broadcasters the leverage to dictate how we sell our programming packages to our subscribers,” the operator group said.

CHASTISES CABLE

Martin, who has pushed cable to offer a la carte options and rebates for channel-blockers, used the small press event in a House office building to chastise cable for not offering realistic alternatives to expanded basic that he said contained “some of the coarsest programming ever produced.”

Martin said his dialogue with cable on content issues had not gone well.

“The industry has not responded in a meaningful way,” Martin said. “Americans deserve greater control over content and their cable bills.”

The bill won praise from the Parents Television Council, Consumers Union, and Concerned Women for America (CWA), whose president, Wendy Wright, compared the harsh edge of some cable programming to a male pervert who flashed an obscene photo in the eyes of a 12-year-old girl on her way home from school.

“He would be arrested and yet every day cable companies do this very thing right in our homes,” Wright said. “Innocent families buy cable for news, sports and entertainment. Yet cable companies abuse this access to spew obscene and violent shows into living rooms and they make us pay for it.”

Democratic Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) joined Republican Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) in taking the lead on the bill, which is similar to the one Lipinski introduced in 2006.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have rolled out family tiers, but without ESPN, the popular 24-hour sports channel owned by The Walt Disney Co. The bill would appear to mandate inclusion of ESPN if the cable company went with the family-tier option.

Cable operators are not regulated for indecency. Under the bill, cable systems that opted for indecency regulation by the FCC would need to ban graphic talk and images related to sex from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on their programming tiers.

Under the block-and-rebate scenario, cable customers could exclude as many channels as they want and expect to receive a bill credit “equal to the amount” that the cable operator pays “for the right to provide such blocked channels” to customers.

“With this choice, families would have the ability to call their provider and say, 'I don’t want my MTV,’ ” Lipinski said. “While this is not a perfect solution, it would clean up what is offered in the basic package of programming.”

HEADED TO COMMERCE

The bill will likely be referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has direct oversight of the FCC. None of the bill sponsors serves on that panel. Lipinski said he was hopeful the bill would make progress, claiming it had more support than most people knew.

Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is planning soon to introduce a bill designed to curb children’s exposure to indecency and violence on broadcast and cable TV, but, according to his press secretary, he isn’t expected to propose a la carte mandates at this time.

The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to hold a hearing June 26 on a recent FCC TV-violence study, which partly concluded with Martin’s support that forcing the a la carte sale of cable programming would raise fewer First Amendment concerns in court than direct regulation of speech, such as banning indecent language and material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

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