Senate Panel OKs Blocking Bill


The Senate Commerce Committee last Thursday unanimously adopted a bill (S. 602) that requires the Federal Communications Commission to study the availability of “advanced blocking technologies” to filter not just TV programming, but also Internet content.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), was different from the version introduced in February, which contained language that allowed the FCC to mandate use of blocking devices “across a wide variety of distribution platforms, including wired, wireless and Internet platforms.”

Under the bill that now heads to the Senate floor, the agency would have 90 days to initiate and 270 days to conclude a notice of inquiry that results in a report to Congress. The bill would not authorize the FCC to adopt rules. The Pryor bill is another step toward finding a technological fix to the problem of children viewing indecent and excessively violent content supplied by broadcasters, pay TV operators and now Internet-service providers.

The bill is also a response to concerns about the underutilization of the content-blocking V-chip in TV sets, based on studies that parents are unaware of the technology or fault it because the accompanying ratings system can be inaccurate and not applied in a uniform manner by the same network or across networks.

“It’s an uphill battle for parents trying to protect their kids from viewing inappropriate programming. I believe there is a whole new generation of technology that can provide an additional layer of help for these parents,” Pryor said in a statement. “My bill simply lights a fire under the FCC to take a fresh look at new options in the marketplace.”

FCC chairman Kevin Martin supports the a la carte sale of cable networks as the solution to parental concern about children seeing inappropriate content, putting him at odds with the cable industry’s view that blocking solutions are superior to government interference in the distribution of cable programming.

The Pryor bill contains language signaling the FCC to look for alternatives to a la carte mandates. In examining blocking tools, the bill said, the FCC should do so in ways “that do not affect the packaging or pricing of a content provider’s offering.”

“We commend [Sen.] Pryor for his leadership to help parents better understand the available tools that can help them control what their children see on television. Cable companies already provide customers with advanced parental control technologies and our industry is working hard to improve these tools so parents can easily monitor and screen out unwanted programming,” said Brian Dietz, vice president of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

The Parents Television Council, which backs Martin on the a la carte or “cable choice” issue, issued a mild endorsement of Pryor’s bill.

“Our desire is that the industry will respond to continued public demand for a safer television environment for children and families by adhering to the decency law on broadcast television and by creating a way for parents to choose and pay for only the cable programming they want,” said PTC president Tim Winter.