Time Warner First In a Family Way

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Time Warner Cable took the first swing at creating a family friendly tier of basic-cable television service. But whether this initial at bat becomes a home run with other cable operators, consumers, public-interest groups, federal regulators and legislators remains to be seen.

In the lineup: The Weather Channel, CNN Headline News, Disney Channel, The Science Channel, Food Network, the Spanish-language La Familia service, two channels of C-SPAN and seven other networks.

“This new family tier will offer our customers yet another way to obtain kid-friendly programs,” chairman and CEO Glenn Britt said in a prepared statement.

But whether this will appease Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and the public-interest groups who have kept up a steady drumbeat this year about the amount of profanity and sexual content on basic cable services is not known.

And Time Warner’s move — the first in response to pressure from Stevens and Martin to provide more protection to families from salacious material on their screens — was met, curiously, with silence from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, whose president, Kyle McSlarrow, had been trying to build a consensus in the industry for family tiers of programming; and by most of the networks that Time Warner put on its tier, except for The Weather Channel. Also notably silent: the FCC and chairman Martin.

“Our programming is designed to protect families and keep them safe, and it’s very important that all families have access to our service,” Weather executive vice president of business affairs and affiliate relations Becky Powhatan said.

The $12.99 a month tier did garner one harsh reaction: indignation from the Parents Television Council, a television-industry watchdog group. Its president, Brent Bozell, called Time Warner’s tier “a joke” and continued to call for cable system operators to allow their customers to purchase each channel of programming on its own, a la carte.

Other MSOs’ family lineups could differ completely from Time Warner’s “Family Choice.’’ Comcast and Insight Communications declined to comment late last week on what tiers they might begin to market.

The new tier will be rolled out across Time Warner systems in the first quarter of 2006, its executives said. Only then will the company know whether many customers will sign up for its new tier.

But, absent from the tier are high-rated networks such as USA Network and ESPN; and the most-watched news networks, Cable News Network and Fox News. Also noticeably absent from the tier are highly rated kid-targeted services such as Nickelodeon and family-targeted services such as ABC Family and Hallmark Channel.

Beyond that, Time Warner’s choice is costly to consumers. Each channel on its new tier costs consumers 87 cents. That compares to as little as 60 cents per channel for basic-cable service on Time Warner systems; and 51 cents for expanded-basic service (see chart at right).

But the family choice is a set of digital networks. If a family also needs a digital converter box, that’s another $7.95, or 53 cents a channel.

Time Warner is the first MSO to launch a family tier after NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow told a Senate committee a week ago that Time Warner, Comcast Corp., Insight Communications Co., Cox Communications Inc. and operators serving about 50% of all cable subscribers will offer a family tier of programming by the first quarter of next year. Time Warner based its family tier decisions on the amount of “G-rated” programming each network offers, eliminating services like its own Cartoon Network, which programs more-mature animated shows as part of its late night “Adult Swim” block.

“We selected channels that were G-rated in nature, did not include 'live’ entertainment programming and which contained content that was generally perceived as acceptable for the entire family to view. We also picked widely distributed channels that were well-known and recognized by viewers,” Time Warner chairman and CEO Glenn Britt said in a statement.

Leichtman Research Group Inc. principal analyst Bruce Leichtman predicted that Martin and lawmakers would embrace Time Warner’s family-friendly overtures. “In my mind, Martin’s real goal is family values and not a la carte. Success or failure [of the tier] is not that important,” says Leichtman.

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