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Indecent Proposal

Few believe the FCC will begin policing cable and satellite, but some see the decency battle as a way to force cable companies to offer a la carte pricing and broader channel options.
March 4, 2005

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.

More likely, however, is that the indecency cry could reignite the long-simmering cable and satellite a la carte battle. One of the leading social conservative organizations is planning on using the indecency issue to lobby for a la carte cable in the Spring.

In August 2004, the FCC held hearings on the topic of whether cable companies should be required to offer a la carte channel selections, whereby consumers could pick and choose the channels they wanted rather than being forced to take the dozens or even hundreds currently offered by most cable companies.

The idea found a strong ally in Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), then the head of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

After deliberating for three months, the FCC returned a verdict: A la carte selection would increase prices to consumers, according to their study, since doing so would increase the back-end costs to cable companies. The decision – and the study on which it was based – was highly controversial when it was released in late November.

Unlike the August effort, however, which was couched in “consumer choice” concerns, this effort would carry with it the far more pressing – and politically lucrative – issue of indecency.

And with the recent indecency rumblings, unlikely allies are forming to once again push the issue of a la carte pricing.

The Parents Television Council, a 10-year-old, Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that uses the Internet to mobilize citizens against television shows that it views as harmful and negative, is only offering Stevens’ notion secondary support, preferring instead an a la carte or tiered cable offering.

“We hope [Stevens’ plan] doesn’t reach the bill stage,” says Lara Mahaney, director of corporate affairs for PTC. “We think there’s a better way to go about it.”

Mahaney says the PTC is currently forming coalitions “from the left and the right” and plans a “heavy lobbying campaign” in April or May for a la carte, or tier-based consumer cable choice.

One possible coalition member – to his own surprise – might be Jonathan Rintels, Executive Director for the Center for Creative Voices in the Media, a Washington, DC-based organization aimed at “preserving original, independent, and diverse voices in America’s media.”

Though Rintels calls PTC “the number one national nanny,” and says the group is part of a “mindless stampede towards censorship as the first resort,” he sides with them on their preference for changing the cable channel offerings over censorship.

Though he acknowledges that the telecommunications and network lobbies wield enormous influence in Washington, he believes this might be the time to mount a serious campaign.

“There’s so much momentum with objectionable programming that maybe this is [a la carte’s] time,” he says.  “If Congress really wants to get serious about program content quality or choice on cable, they ought to look into a la carte.”

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