Stevens: Let Market Test Family Tiers

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Washington -- Family tiers launched by cable and direct-broadcast satellite providers deserve a market test before Congress should consider a la carte mandates, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Thursday.

Stevens -- who praised the move to family tiers -- said a la carte legislation was still a possibility, but it was not something he would support while cable and DBS are clearly trying to accommodate lawmakers and family groups troubled by raunchy programming.

"It's still out there, and it will have to be discussed sometime. But I do believe these voluntary efforts may result in the kind of choice and kind of controls parents have requested and family groups have demanded," Stevens said at the hearing.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and George Allen (R-Va.) complained that ESPN was omitted from the family tier.

"To have a family tier and not have sports on it, in our family, would not be proper family programming," said Allen, whose late father, George Allen, coached the National Football League’s Washington Redskins.

But Comcast Corp. executive vice president David Cohen explained to the Senate panel that ESPN has entertainment programming that is inappropriate for children. He mentioned ESPN series Playmakers and Tilt, both of which had “TV-MA” ratings, adding that Comcast's family tier included local TV stations, which carry lots of sports.

ESPN spokeswoman Catherine Sloane Bret said the network "would welcome discussion" on family-tier carriage from any distributor, adding that the "vast majority" of ESPN programming is family-friendly. No current ESPN program, she said, is rated TV-MA.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) called family tiers a positive step, but he said they fell short of dealing with violent programming. Rockefeller is the sponsor of a bill that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to regulate violent cable programming.

"I don't believe voluntary actions alone … are sufficient to address the issue," he added.

At the hearing, former Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti announced a massive advertising campaign, involving nearly all segments of the major media, to blast messages to parents about program-blocking technology, such as the V-chip in TVs and cable set-top boxes.

The campaign will run 18 months and cost $250 million-$300 million, he added.

"The beauty of this is that we don't torment and torture the First Amendment," Valenti said.

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