Two Congressmen this week pledged their support to push decency standards onto cable and satellite television – areas historically immune to federal decency oversight.
While their announcement has outraged the telecommunications industry and civil libertarians, most observers believe their idea stands little chance of progressing through Congress. More intriguing, however, is the possibility that the cable and satellite indecency news will resurrect the issue of offering consumers a la carte options for selecting cable channels.
The brouhaha began on Tuesday, when Senator Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska), head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, declared that he wanted to apply the same standards of decency that govern the content of over-the-air television and radio to pay cable and satellite television.
“I think we have the same power to deal with cable as over-the-air” broadcasters, he told the National Association of Broadcasters, according to several wire reports. “There has to be some standard of decency.”
On Wednesday, Stevens got support from the other side of the Hill when House Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed with him.
Few observers contacted for this article believe Stevens and Barton will get their wish, primarily because doing so would be a massive procedural undertaking and would likely cause a major rift in the Republican party between the traditional “less government, freer markets” followers and those beholden to “morals voters”.
To police these networks, Congress would have to pass a bill essentially re-writing the Federal Communications Commission charter. The FCC doesn’t police cable and satellite television because they don’t use the public spectrum.
Since cable and satellite television subscriptions are a private transaction, not available by default to all Americans, the FCC has wisely opted not to push its own mandate into what would likely be murky waters.
“Any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendment objections,” Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, says in a written statement. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has found, the subscription nature of cable service strongly differentiate[s] cable from broadcasting, which is distributed free and unfiltered over the air.”
It’s a policy that made sense in the past and that makes more sense today.
Governing cable television could very quickly lead to the cable companies governing Internet content, since so many American consumers receive their connection through a cable modem.
And it’s about to get even trickier. With telecommunication companiess such as Verizon rapidly launching television services, it stands to reason that these companies would then have to police their networks as well to avoid FCC fines.
Forcing the FCC to govern these industries would seriously burden an already-strapped organization, not to mention the effect a change would have to the business model for the telecommunications, cable, and satellite industry since it would be legally questionable to offer the highly lucrative On Demand adult fare, for example.