House Might Pass Pryor Bill: Sources

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Washington—In a surprise move, the House could pass this week a bill that would require the Federal Communications Commission to produce a study on parents' access to advanced technologies that are capable of blocking content on television and the Internet, media industry lobbyists and a Capitol Hill aide said Thursday.

The Senate passed the bill (S. 606) Wednesday by unanimous consent. House passage of an identical version would send the bill to the White House for President Bush's signature.

House action was called "possible" by two media industry sources on Thursday. The sources asked not to be identified.

The plan is for the House to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but that would also mean that just one lawmaker could block passage. A Capitol Hill source added that getting all the right people to sign off on the bill over the next 24 hours might not be easy.

House passage would be something of a surprise because the House Energy and Commerce Committee, so focused on the Feb. 17, 2009 digital TV transition, didn't hold a hearing in 2007 or 2008 on the latest technologies to keep indecent and violent content outside the reach of children.

Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the FCC is restricted to conducting a study for Congress within 270 days; its analysis is not supposed to recommend technologies that "affect the packaging or pricing of a content provider's offering."

In other words, the study is not to be used as a platform for an FCC chairman to advocate for the a la carte sale of cable programming, as FCC chairman Kevin Martin has repeatedly done.

The Pryor bill—the Child Safe Viewing Act—is another effort at finding a technological fix to the problem of children viewing indecent and excessively violent content supplied by broadcasters, pay TV operators and now Internet-access providers.

"It's time for the FCC to take a fresh look at how the market can empower parents with more tools to choose appropriate programming for their children. This bill is a pragmatic, sensible approach where parents, kids and technology can all benefit," Pryor said in a prepared statement after the vote Wednesday.

Under the Pryor bill, the FCC is required to issue a notice of inquiry, and it is not authorized to adopt rules.

Among other things, Pryor's bill directs the FCC to examine "the existence and availability of advanced blocking technologies that are compatible with various communications devices or platforms."

It also orders the FCC to study ways to encourage parental use of such technologies on "wired, wireless and Internet platforms" in order to shield children "from indecent or objectionable programming" as determined by parents.

Almost all new TV sets today must include the V-chip, the technology which allows parents to block TV shows based on content ratings provided by the owners of broadcast and cable channels. Digital cable set-top boxes also come with sophisticated blocking tools, filtering content by show, time, channel and rating.

Pryor is concerned about the underutilization of the V-chip based on studies that found parents are unaware of the technology or they fault it because the accompanying ratings system can be inaccurate and not applied in a uniform manner by the same network or across networks.

"With over 500 channels and video streaming, parents could use a little help monitoring what their kids watch when they are not in the room,"  Pryor said.  "Today's technology to protect children from indecency goes above and beyond the capabilities of the V-chip," Pryor said.

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