Some A La Carte Calls Cite Net 'Porn’

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The cable industry’s latest political challenge isn’t just about cost. It’s also about content, and how some segments of the viewing public respond to it.

“On cable television, you’ve got programming that is, in essence, soft-core pornography in the basic package, such as on MTV,” says Janet M. LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, a family-values group based here.

Her 500,000-member organization, with a right-of-center agenda, is whipping up a storm over cable programming and the notion that consumers still have to pay to block indecent channels.

LaRue’s group, whose mission has been embraced by some key House Republican leaders, has locked arms with consumer groups in a high-profile effort to clean up cable programming and reduce consumer bills.

Cable leaders are fighting back, and some are crying censorship.

Consumer groups have traditionally focused on cable rates, while Concerned Women has objected to racy cable content on the expanded-basic tier. For the first time, they have found an issue around which they can rally: A la carte pricing.

If consumers are allowed to pick their own channels, so goes the theory, they will be able to exclude indecent programming harmful to children and not have to pay for programming they don’t want to view, thereby lowering their monthly cable bills.

LaRue is willing to give cable an opportunity to adopt a la carte voluntarily before pushing for a legislative fix.

“Our first effort is to get the industry to do it on their own,” she said in an interview last week. “If the prices are going to continue to go up the way they have, then I think the industry is going to bring on itself some regulation by government.”

Her threat can’t be ignored. Concerned Women has close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas). DeLay has advocated voluntary a la carte. Barton indicated recently that he expects that within a few years, cable networks will have to comply with federal indecency rules that currently apply to TV stations.

The a la carte battle on Capitol Hill gained momentum in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s breast exposure during the Super Bowl halftime show produced by MTV and televised nationally by CBS.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for people,” LaRue said.

DEAL VS. MCCAIN

Two approaches are circulating in Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants to require cable operators to offer all channels a la carte while not prohibiting the offering of tiers.

Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), by contrast, would require programmers to permit cable operators to sell their channels a la carte, though the operators would not be legally required to do so.

Whether or not Deal or McCain’s efforts will work their way into law is unclear.

McCain indicated legislation wouldn’t come easy. “You can’t underestimate the enormous influence of the cable people,” he said. “They are very powerful here. They are very large contributors. They are very much involved in the political process, showing their good citizenship.”

The cable industry has launched a counterattack. The industry maintains that a la carte would cause rates to soar and shrink the number of cable networks.

On the indecency front, the largest cable companies have promised to supply free blocking technology to consumers that need it.

“Cable television is sold as a bundle of channels, which offers the best value to consumers,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association Brian Dietz spokesman said. “Any move toward an a la carte mandate would only result in less choice and higher prices for consumers.”

POLL BACKS CHOICE

LaRue dismissed cable’s arguments with a shrug. She pointed to a Concerned Women-commissioned poll that showed consumers strongly favor picking channels individually rather than buying tiers with dozens of channels.

“This is what your consumers want. You could get more customers by doing it,” LaRue said. With regard to blocking technology, Concerned Women considers it an affront that consumers are required to pay for channels that they in effect discard because they find the content objectionable and inappropriate for children.

“The concern is the gratuitous violence and also the very strong sexual content of a lot of programming available on basic cable,” LaRue said.

Some in the cable industry have accused a la carte proponents of engaging in a form of censorship. Time Warner Inc. chairman and CEO chairman Richard Parsons and Oxygen Media Inc. CEO Geraldine Laybourne did so at the National Show in New Orleans two weeks ago.

“Individuals who are saying to cable companies, 'Give us choice in our basic package or you self-impose the broadcast indecency rules on your basic package,’ that’s not censorship,” said LaRue, who claims it takes government intrusion to qualify as censorship.

RESEARCHED PORN

A lawyer with a degree from Trinity International University in Santa Ana, Calif., LaRue has spent the last 12 years researching and writing about pornography in the U.S. She joined Concerned Women two years ago, following stints with the Family Research Council and The National Law Center for Children and Families.

Married with two children and three step children, LaRue is the co-author of the 2002 book, Protecting Your Child in an X-Rated World.

LaRue’s understanding of the cable industry has some gaps.

For example, she said cable systems were a monopoly, ignoring the presence of direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp., and their 20 million subscribers.

She was also unaware that consumers may buy just the broadcast basic tier, which typically excludes the cable networks she finds problematic.

“I didn’t know I could just get that,” LaRue said.

A Comcast cable subscriber living in Alexandria, Va., LaRue maintains that several channels she and her husband Gene have seen on expanded basic are pornographic.

“Have you seen some of the programming that’s on E! Entertainment [Television] late at night? It’s porn,” she said.

Accusing cable of bundling porn with family friendly fare is an incendiary charge, particularly because cable channels most people consider pornographic, such as Playboy TV and Spice, are sold a la carte.

“It’s not appropriate for me to respond to her comments, other than to say that cable does provide families with a wide variety of options, and if people find content objectionable to their personal tastes, they do have the ability to block it out using a variety of methods that cable companies provide,” the NCTA’s Dietz said.

'OBSCENE’ NETS

The Federal Communications Commission regulates indecency on broadcast television, but the agency probably lacks the authority to do the same on cable.

LaRue asserted that a few cable networks are actually obscene.

Unlike indecency, obscenity has no First Amendment protection and is therefore criminally prosecutable.

After a slow start, the Bush administration has begun to crack down on hard-core pornography, “the most deviant, hellish stuff,” she said.

In the months ahead, she expects the Justice Department to go after softer porn that LaRue said is still legally obscene.

She quickly added that she didn’t possess any inside information on potential moves by federal prosecutors.

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