Senate Bill Targets Cable Indecency

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A bipartisan Senate bill introduced Tuesday would regulate cable programming for indecency and violence upon a finding by the Federal Communications Commission that ratings and blocking technology are insufficient to shield children from inappropriate content.

The bill (S. 616) was introduced by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), and it contains numerous provisions taken from TV-violence legislation that passed the Senate last year.

Under the new bill, the FCC would be empowered “to adopt measures” to protect children in cable- and satellite-TV homes from viewing indecent and violent content during hours when children are expected to comprise a substantial portion of the viewing audience. Under current FCC rules, that period runs from 6 a.m.-10 p.m.

The bill was silent on which FCC measures would be appropriate. It did not order the FCC to impose a la carte or family-friendly tiers on cable operators. But it could require cable to run 30-second content warnings with regard to recorded and scripted programming with sex, strong language and violence.

The bill also contains a "sense of Congress" provision calling on cable, radio and television to adopt a voluntary code of conduct.

The Hutchison-Rockefeller bill would permit the FCC to exempt premium and pay-per-view programming.

Both Hutchison and Rockefeller serve on the Senate Commerce Committee under chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who recently came out in support of regulating cable programming for indecency.

In something of a shift, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association released a statement devoid of the industry’s usual claims that efforts to regulate cable content would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Instead, the statement emphasized the industry’s concern about programming harmful to children and a willingness to work with Hutchison and Rockefeller. It also noted cable’s commitment to providing parental controls.

“We want to work closely with all members of Congress to educate parents about the tools and resources available to help them make responsible viewing decisions for their families,” NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said.

Past NCTA statements frequently noted that regulation of cable content raised serious First Amendment issues and that the Supreme Court had endorsed blocking technology as superior to rules that require cable to time-channel programming, including adult content.

The Hutchison-Rockefeller bill is much tougher on broadcasters than on pay TV providers. To the extent that the FCC finds that rating and blocking technology are now working, the agency is empowered to ban “gratuitous and excessively violent” programming from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Indecent broadcast programming is already banned during that 16-hour period.

The bill contains large fines ($500,000 per utterance, under a $3 million-per-day cap) that would apply to broadcasters. It was unclear whether the fines could be applied to cable and satellite.

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