Washington— Federal indecency rules now apply only to broadcast TV — but watch out MTV: Music Television, you could be next.
Historically, pay TV has been exempt from rules that promote clean content for kids. But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), potent chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wants to remove cable’s exemption.
Cable content is riddled with filth and there is no reason why Congress can’t include cable within the indecency regime, Stevens said.
“I’m going to meet with the cable people early next month, and I intend to tell them that,” he said, addressing a National Association of Broadcasters forum here March 2. “Broadcasters alone are not to blame. Cable is often worse — very worse.”
If he can obtain the cooperation of House leaders, Stevens would be willing to advance a bill by the end of the year.
“I haven’t talked to them yet, but if they want the indecency bill separately before the year is over, I am going to do my best, and so will [Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)], to work with them,” he added.
Stevens also supports including satellite TV and satellite radio. “He is talking across the board,” a Stevens aide said.
Ideas about broadening indecency rules would involve Stevens in a major fight with the cable industry.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association said it would oppose the legislation.
But it might not be cable’s only fight with Stevens, an 81-year-old warrior with a feisty disposition who started in the Senate in 1968 and is widely considered one of its most powerful members.
MULTICAST IN MIX
Stevens said he also wants to force cable to carry multiple programming services provided by each digital TV station, as long as the extra channels were public-service related. That would overturn last month’s Federal Communications Commission’s decision to nix multicast must-carry.
Stevens also plans to require cable to chip in some of its $10 billion in cable-modem revenue to the program that subsidizes affordable phone service in rural America. Cable wants to pay only on its Internet-protocol phone revenue, a much small contribution than Stevens has in mind.
Because Stevens and Inouye are expected to move legislation dealing with TV stations’ transition to all-digital broadcasting and with overhauling the Telecommunications Act of 1996, they have several opportunities to slip in cable-indecency provisions.
“Ted Stevens is an extremely consequential figure. Obviously, those comments have to be taken very, very seriously,” a cable-industry source said.
Stevens has a key House supporter: Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who thinks it’s unfair only broadcasters are punished.
“If we can work out the constitutional questions, I would be supportive of that. I think [cable] ought to play, to the extent it’s possible, by the same rules,” Barton said.
The House passed a bill last month upping broadcast-indecency fines from $32,500 per violation to $500,000. But the bill excluded cable — an omission that Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said was a mistake, because it left the false impression that all of TV would be clean when kids are watching.
Barton said cable indecency was excluded because “we wanted to move something that already had support pretty quickly, to encourage the Senate to act quickly. If we put cable and satellite in it, that was a new concept.”
Stevens is going after cable based on his own unpleasant experience with the medium.
“As a matter of fact, I can’t remember really getting up and leaving a program at my age, but I did the other night. On cable, I just got tired of four-letter words with participles. I decided that whoever wrote that program didn’t have a dictionary.”
Citing a recent Parents Television Council study, Stevens said that 75% of teen-agers watch MTV, which includes programming rife with “sexually suggestive acts of violence and abuse of women.”
When PTC issued the study — called “MTV Smut Peddlers: Targeting Kids With Sex, Drugs and Alcohol” — an MTV spokeswoman called it “an unfair and inaccurate depiction of MTV.”
The FCC bans the broadcast of indecent content — generally defined as patently offensive sexual and excretory material intended to pander and shock — from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are expected to be watching in large numbers.
Cable has argued that placing indecency restrictions on pay TV, when blocking technology exists to shield children from inappropriate content, violates the First Amendment under a Supreme Court precedent involving adult content.
Stevens isn’t buying cable’s legal arguments.
“I got notice the other day that [cable companies] think that we don’t have authority to deal with cable in terms of indecency, and I disagree violently on that, and we might as well get it out on the table,” Stevens said.
NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said the trade group would stand its ground.
“We believe any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendment objections, and we will oppose efforts to impose regulation on cable programming,” he said.
A DirecTV Inc. spokesman said the company believed that application of broadcast indecency rules to satellite was unconstitutional and that government should not make editorial decisions for private companies.
There is not unanimity within cable.
An executive of The Walt Disney Co. said cable-indecency regulation applied to expanded basic would reduce interest in a la carte and mini-tier legislation.
“It would be our hope that a common indecency standard for the expanded-basic bundle would lessen the interest in legislating on a la carte and tiers,” the Disney executive said. “We think it’s inevitable that it gets applied to the now nearly ubiquitous expanded-basic bundle.”
Stevens’s focus on cable seems new, because last year he passed on an opportunity to regulate cable for indecency.
Last March, he voted against an amendment sponsored by former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), which would have applied indecency rules to expanded basic until 85% of TV households with children used V-chips or cable boxes to filter content, or told their cable companies that they didn’t want to use blocking technology. The amendment lost by one vote.
When asked why he didn’t push for cable indecency last year, Stevens said he wasn’t chairman of the committee. The gavel was held then by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Cable’s traditional defense has been that customers buy cable while broadcasting is free. As a result, content regulation of cable is harder to justify in court than regulation of broadcasting.
FCC chairman Michael Powell, who is leaving this month, said last Thursday that the courts would likely toss out cable indecency rules.
“It’s very likely unconstitutional. I personally do not support an extension,” Powell told Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto in a live interview. “When the Congress takes a hard look at this, if they really study the constitutionality, they’ll find, as they have before, that it is difficult and unwise to extend it.”
Stevens, a Harvard Law School graduate, said Congress could protect children from indecency content on cable consistent with the First Amendment.
“Parents must have the capability to shut this down without having to be there to preview and monitor each show,” he said.
Stevens said his legislation would be applicable to all cable channels, including premium networks such as Home Box Office.
The NAB has been troubled for a long time about racy cable content operating outside the indecency laws while broadcasters were facing an FCC crackdown since Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl breast exposure, which led to a $550,000 fine against CBS parent Viacom Inc.
FRITTS SEES VALIDATION
“It was validation of what we have been hearing at other parts of Capitol Hill,” said NAB president Edward Fritts. “The fact that [Stevens] said he was going to go announce this to cable, the fact that he felt like he could get passed the constitutional concerns on behalf of children was important.”
Stevens dropped another bomb on cable. He criticized the FCC’s Feb. 10 ruling that cable had to carry just one digital-TV service per station even though stations can use digital technology to beam five or six services.
“Now the financial incentive for you to deliver that very programming has been damaged, I think, by the commission’s must-carry decision,” Stevens told the NAB group.
Stevens called for a new cable-carriage mandate that would include “one signal, plus whatever is public service, full-time public service — news, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, weather, whatever it is, then I think they should have to carry those.”
Barton, while a Stevens ally on indecency, told the NAB gathering that he opposed government-mandated cable-carriage for TV stations, saying the market should determine that.
“I was not for must-carry 20 years ago,” Barton said. “There are some mandates that we have to have, but I don’t think that’s one of them. I am not going to be a must-carry guy.”