Washington — When Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts has to play front man for cable's indecency counteroffensive, one thing is clear: Cable knows it has a serious public-policy problem on its hands.
The normally low-profile Roberts took center stage here last Wednesday to announce cable's latest educational and technology-blocking solutions for parents.
The effort represented yet another attempt by cable to respond to ongoing calls by some in Congress for more regulation of cable content to protect children from easy access to sex, profanity and violence on cable systems that reach 73 million households.
NOT 'FAR ENOUGH'
Before Roberts even had a chance to return to his Philadelphia headquarters to run the country's largest cable company, critics of cable content pounced on the industry for continuing to put the burden on parents to filter sleazy programming.
Although Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) called cable's new initiative “a step in the right direction,” he also complained that he didn't “think it quite goes far enough.”
Stevens has been a tough cable critic of late, vaguely threatening some kind of regulation if the industry did not shape up on indecency.
Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin had a similar reaction: It was good to see cable taking action, but more was needed to address legitimate parental concerns.
“I continue to believe the cable industry should offer a family tier or offer programming in a more a la carte manner,” Martin said in a statement.
Martin said last month at the National Show in San Francisco that the FCC does not have authority to regulate cable indecency. But FCC chairmen have been known to use media and telecommunications mergers as leverage to extract concessions. Comcast or Time Warner Cable, or both, will likely need Martin's approval to take control of bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp.
At least one lawmaker apparently decided that continuing to expect cable to create a safe haven for kids was unrealistic. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last Thursday introduced a bill that would fine cable companies $500,000 per day for failing to provide a “child-friendly” tier that included a minimum of 15 channels.
But the reaction wasn't all negative. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) issued a statement calling cable's education initiative “a positive development.”
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who led the fight to regulate cable rates in early 1990s, said cable had taken “an important step to help parents control their family TV viewing.”
At a press conference, Roberts outlined a multipart strategy for addressing indecency concerns, but the plan included nothing regarding the creation of a family-friendly tier or the offering of more a la carte options.
In an operator-programmer alliance, the cable industry agreed to contribute $250 million to a yearlong public-service TV ad campaign on blocking technology; to present larger TV ratings icons that would air before every show and after every commercial break for 15 seconds, starting in June; and to conduct up to 100 local workshops that cable systems will host to provide parents with more information about blocking technology.
Cable also promised to continue to provide free channel blocking to consumers who can't do so today, to offer parents more written literature on blocking during installations, and to ensure that programmer web sites had up-to-date material on channel blocking tools.
“We want every parent in America to know about parental controls. We want every parent in America to turn to cable first to help them put them in control of their TV,” Roberts said.
Seated beside Discovery Communications Inc. CEO Judith McHale and National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow, Roberts mentioned that cable's ability to provide easy and instantaneous blocking would give parents a Google-like command over TV that would keep them loyal to cable.
“If you look at the success of products like Google and others, giving people more customization and control is a winner in the consumer society that we live in,” Roberts said. “It's also a good business strategy. It will help differentiate cable from other providers.”
Saying parental education about technology was the cornerstone of cable's approach to indecency, Roberts, McHale and McSlarrow repeated cable's opposition to mini-tiers and a la carte.
Cable critics argue that parents shouldn't have to pay for cable channels they block for indecency and that mini-tiers and a la carte would promote their cause.
While Roberts and the others were candid that some cable programming was unsuitable for children, they refused to concede that restructuring cable packages was superior to genuine efforts to empower parents with tools that require nothing more than a few clicks of the remote control and remembering a four-digit password.
At least two federal government studies have shown that an a la carte regime has the potential of skewing cable's economics, causing consumers to pay more for fewer channels.
“We all understand that, intuitively, that it doesn't make economic sense to the customer to separate all those pieces out,” McSlarrow said. “We know what's going to happen: You are going to pay more for each of those things.”
TIER: TOO SUBJECTIVE
Creation of a family tier was subjective and unworkable, McHale said.
“How do you define family-friendly? Who is going to define what is family-friendly. Frankly, family-friendly differs from family to family,” she said.
The Walt Disney Co., owner of ESPN and other popular cable networks, reiterated its view that if Congress is going to regulate cable for indecency, the best approach was to graft broadcast indecency rules onto cable's expanded basic tier. Those rules would ban indecent content from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“The simple application of the broadcast standard to all expanded basic channels would effectively yield one large 'family tier' with less disruption for both consumers and industry,” said Preston Padden, Disney's executive vice president of worldwide government relations.