Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Tuesday that he would support legislation that applied broadcast-indecency rules to cable and required cable to carry multiple digital-broadcast signals if the extra channels are public-service-related.
Stevens said cable content is riddled with filth and there is no reason why Congress can’t include cable within the indecency rules.
“I’m going to meet with the cable people early next month, and I intend to tell them that,” he added.
Stevens said that if he could get the cooperation of House leaders, he would be willing to advance a bill with cable-indecency provisions 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 and Inouye could include cable-indecency provisions in legislation dealing with TV stations’ transition to all-digital broadcasting or a bill overhauling the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Later Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who has previously predicted adoption of cable-indecency rules, repeated his support for such legislation, saying that it was unfair that only broadcasters could be punished.
“If we can work out the constitutional questions, I would be supportive of that. I think they 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 mistake.
Stevens said he was watching TV the other night and was disgusted at what he saw at 8 p.m. He did not name the program.
“The star of the show, a cartoon-character lion, openly discussed sex toys and masturbation,” Stevens said. “Now why was that on TV at 8 o’clock at night?”
He added that he has been turned off by cable programming, too, saying, “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.”
Stevens’ comments came in remarks to a National Association of Broadcasters forum at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel. He also spoke with reporters later. Barton addressed the same group a few hours later.
The Federal Communications Commission bans the broadcast of indecent content -- generally defined as patently offensive sexual and excretory material intended to pander and shock -- from 6 a.m.-10 p.m., when children are expected to be watching in large numbers.
Cable has argued that indecency restrictions on pay TV, when blocking technology exists to shield children from inappropriate content, violate the First Amendment under a Supreme Court precedent involving adult content.
“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.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz said cable would fight efforts to restrict cable content.
“We believe any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendment objections, and we will oppose efforts to impose regulation on cable programming,” Dietz said.
An executive from 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.
Last year, Stevens voted in committee against an amendment sponsored by former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) that 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.
Asked why he didn’t push for cable indecency last year, Stevens said he wasn’t chairman of the committee, adding that he would let the Supreme Court decide whether he’s wrong on the law.
“We put restrictions on the over-the-air signals. I think we can put restrictions on cable itself. At least I intend to do my best to push that,” he said.
Stevens indicated that the Supreme Court ruling upholding mandatory cable carriage of local-TV signals could be enough to allow Congress to require cable to comply with indecency laws.
“If we can force them to carry your signals, I think we can tell them that they must live up to the same standards of decency that we apply to [broadcasting],” he said.
Stevens also 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.
He added that the carriage mandate should 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 said he has opposed government-mandated cable-carriage rules.