Washington— Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is pressing the cable and satellite TV industries to come up with their own solution to address concerns about indecent content.
“I would prefer to try and work out a voluntary ratings system and blocking, and try to find some way to meet the demands of the family community without getting to the mandates. If that doesn’t work, then we have to find a way to make the mandate effective,” Stevens said last Tuesday, at the end of a day-long forum on indecency held by the Commerce Committee.
Forum participants included more than 20 leaders from the cable, broadcasting and satellite industries and from several family and religious organizations that have been vocal about the amount of sex, violence, and profanity on TV at times when children are watching. [For more on the topic, see Spotlight, page 16.]
A House-passed bill would hike broadcast indecency fines from $32,500 to $500,000 per violation. The measure has stalled in the Senate because some lawmakers think the maximum fine is either too harsh or too lenient, Stevens said. In addition, some senators want to empower the FCC to regulate indecency and violence on pay TV services.
The FCC regulates TV and radio for indecency, which includes a ban on sexual and excretory content consider patently offensive between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are expected to be viewing TV in large numbers.
Although Stevens hasn’t unveiled legislation, Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.) introduced a bill that would require cable to create a 15-channel “child friendly” tier or face $500,000-per-day fines. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is co-sponsor of a bill that would regulate violent cable programming if channel-blocking technology was considered ineffective.
“I don’t think the FCC has power to do things about violence,” Rockefeller said, explaining the need for a new law.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he was concerned about not only indecent cable programming on expanded basic, but also the wide availability of pornographic channels. He has not introduced an anti-porn bill.
“My impression is that the cable industry is complicit in promoting pornography and sexually explicit material in our homes,” Pryor said.
Five years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a law that regulated cable distribution of Playboy Channel, a ruling considered a high barrier to the regulation of cable content for indecency.
Stevens said he thinks the court would endorse cable regulation in a new case.
“I’m not sure the Supreme Court will reach the same decision today … I think we have a right to establish the kinds of controls the country demands and do it constitutionally. It can be done,” Stevens said.
If Stevens offers legislation, it is not expected to include the extension of current broadcast-indecency rules to cable’s basic and expanded basic tiers. National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow had proposed that to Stevens, but the senator didn’t endorse it — in part because cable insisted that the law not take effect until the courts had said the law was constitutional under the First Amendment.
'FOUR CLICKS’ ON REMOTE
At the forum, McSlarrow continued to emphasize cable’s public position that content decisions should be left to the private sector and that cable set-top box technology provided parents with a simple and effective means of blocking inappropriate content.
“It’s four clicks and a scroll on a remote: This is not a heavy lift.” McSlarrow said. “We all have a responsibility, including the parents, to step up and use the tools that are available.”
Jack Valenti, the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America and creator of the movie-ratings system four decades ago, implored the Senate panel to refrain from passing new indecency laws.
“It has to be self-regulatory, otherwise you begin to torment and torture the First Amendment and I know you don’t want that,” Valenti said.