Washington— Cable-industry leaders left the National Show in San Francisco last week uncertain whether Congress is fired up enough to toss them into an indecency Alcatraz.
New Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, who favors a cable-created family friendly tier, took some pressure off by noting that he is powerless by law to slap content controls on the medium.
But a key actor in the indecency drama remains Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has threatened legislative action if cable fails to create at least one programming tier devoid of sex and profanity.
In the House, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has similar ideas.
HBO IN MIX?
Stevens has indicated that legislation could be broad enough to sweep in premium channels like Home Box Office.
Sentiment on Capitol Hill is now running against cable.
“What I can say is that if there is a quick vote, the majority would vote along with chairman Barton and Sen. Stevens,” said House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who opposes cable-indecency regulation.
Stevens interrupted his return to Capitol Hill from a Hawaii honeymoon to huddle with cable executives and to tour the Moscone Center show floor, where Larry Flynt’s Hustler booth took up residence on one end while the Best Buy truck, cable’s showcase for channel-blocking technology, anchored the other.
Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and Showtime Networks Inc. chairman Matt Blank were among the cable executives on hand to implore Stevens that easy-to-use, color-coded remote controls capable of erasing entire channels and individual shows by rating and title were far preferable to governmental restraints on speech.
“It was a good exchange of information,” Blank said.
The high-profile attempt to impress Stevens evidently failed to convince the 81-year-old power broker to rule out the legislative option.
“Chairman Stevens hasn’t made any decisions yet. He received a very good explanation of cable’s new approach to parental control. At this point, he is not convinced yet that this is the total answer, but believes the cable industry is certainly working to try to find an answer,” said Stevens aide Melanie Alvord.
Indecency regulation, while designed to address content concerns, could also undermine cable’s expanded-basic tier — the vehicle for delivering consumers the highest number of channels at the lowest per-channel price.
Studies by the FCC and the Government Accountability Office have reported that mini-tiers and a la carte options could raise retail cable rates both for programming and set-tops boxes. They would also threaten the economic viability of niche networks that need to keep company on the same tier with broadly viewed channels like ESPN or Discovery Channel.
Martin, who agreed to take a few questions on stage about cable indecency, arrived at the show trailed by his reputation as a critic of the indiscriminate bundling of channels that range from cartoons with fluffy animals to comedy channels with off-color gags laced with profanity and sexual dialogue.
But Martin kept to the script he first articulated in early 2002: The FCC regulates indecency on radio and broadcast TV.
Extending the FCC’s authority to include cable would require a new law.
“The [FCC] is a creature of Congress. We implement what Congress directs us to. I think it will be for Congress to end up figuring out what they think the appropriate rules should be,” Martin told a convention audience.
MARTIN: TIER NEEDED
Martin didn’t retreat from his view that cable owes its customers, parents especially, a programming tier suitable for children or a range of a la carte options that parents can use to filter inappropriate content.
He issued a kind of friendly warning that cable’s refusal to budge could invite trouble.
“I think this is an opportunity for the industry to not just speak to me, but to speak to the consumers and the parents that we hear some of the concern from,” Martin said.
For now, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association has no plans to create a family friendly tier to appease lawmakers and regulators.
“We are not considering a family friendly tier as a package, as a solution,” McSlarrow said. “We are going to focus on blocking technology and education.”
Cable leaders promised Stevens that the industry would do a better job promoting parental-control technology and make the service more accessible and easier to use, industry sources said.
It also pledged to instruct customer-service representatives to make an extra effort to provide information about available channel-blocking capabilities.
“We are not reflexively saying, 'Gee, everything is fine and dandy — we’re just going to stop here,’ ” McSlarrow said. “We’re willing to look and to be honest about it to see whether or not there are ways to improve it.”
A Stevens aide complained a few weeks ago that cable blocking is complicated and in some cases involved an additional cost.
“It’s four clicks. It’s not like it’s a huge burden on people. You can microwave popcorn in more time and just as easily,” McSlarrow said.
Former Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) routinely scolded cable about rising rates, but the political will to re-regulate cable never materialized.
But Stevens’s attacks on cable programming — coupled with Martin’s unwillingness to embrace cable’s arguments that parents are the first line of defense — is being taken as a far more serious problem than McCain ever posed.
CHERNIN: BUTTON’S HOT
“Any of us who don’t think indecency is a big hot-button issue out there, I think you are being naïve,” said News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin. “It has got tremendous political momentum and I think Kevin [Martin] ultimately represents that momentum.”
Lawmakers and regulators are raising the cable indecency issue based on complaints by parents.
But cable leaders argue, as has President Bush, that parents need to examine their own conduct.
Bush has said parents can turn off the TV. Cable leaders, who don’t want the TV turned off, say they can supply motivated parents with the technology to help them raise G-rated kids.
“That’s buried in this too, I think,” said Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt.
“If parents will take the responsibility, to be concerned about what their children are seeing, this industry provides all of the tools you need to take care of that.”
Mike Farrell and Linda Moss contributed to this report.