In Senate, Cable Claims Two Wins, One Setback

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The Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday rejected in a close vote a proposal that would have imposed large monetary fines on any cable operator caught breaking federal broadcast-indecency regulations.

In another close call, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) floated amendments that would have required cable operators to offer a la carte channels.

But the lawmakers pulled them, fearing that a la carte mandates would take the steam out of hard-hitting broadcast-indecency legislation that surged in popularity after Janet Jackson's breast exposure at the Super Bowl.

However, cable didn't escape unharmed. The bill would levy stiff fines on cable for transmitting violent programming during nonexempt times if the Federal Communications Commission determined that blocking technology and content ratings failed to protect children from exposure to "excessive or gratuitous" TV violence.

Sponsored by Hollings, the violence provision exempts pay-per-view and premium channels.

The FCC bars indecent programming -- roughly defined as crude and smutty talk and images related to sexual and excretory activities -- from 6 a.m.-10 p.m., when children are expected to be in the audience. Both the House and Senate bills lean on the agency to start revoking licenses after three indecency violations.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) - author of the cable-indecency amendment that went down to defeat in a 12-11 vote -- sought to apply broadcast-indecency rules to "expanded-basic" programming, the service tier that includes dozens of cable networks, including Cable News Network, ESPN and MTV: Music Television.

Breaux's amendment covered all pay TV providers, including direct-broadcast satellite, and exempted pay-per-view and premium programming.

Breaux argued that there was no reason to exclude cable and DBS from indecency rules when they use spectrum to some extent just like TV and radio broadcasters.

"All of them use the public airwaves," he added. "Cable uses the public airwaves to get the content to the cable companies."

If Breaux's amendment had passed, the FCC could have fined a cable operator, in certain circumstances, up to $3 million for multiple violations occurring in a single day.

Breaux's amendment was unenforceable if the FCC determined that 85% of households with children were using the V-chip or similar blocking technology programming, or had affirmatively said they didn't want blocking capabilities.