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Cable companies announce ‘family tier’ channels

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The nation’s two largest cable providers, as promised, have announced the makeup of their “family-friendly” programming tiers.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, announced its new “family tier” package Dec. 22, selecting Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Nick Games & Sports, National Geographic, Science Channel, Discovery Kids, PBS’ Kid’s Sprout, Food Network, HGTV, DIY Network, CNN Headline News, The Weather Channel, C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2 and Trinity Broadcasting.

Time Warner, the second-largest cable company, announced earlier that its family tier would feature Disney Channel, Toon Disney, Nick Games & Sports, Boomerang, Science Channel, Discovery Kids, Food Network, HGTV, DIY Network, FIT-TV, La Familia, CNN Headline News, The Weather Channel, C-SPAN 2 and C-SPAN 3.

A trade group for the cable industry announced Dec. 12 that several cable companies, including Comcast and Time Warner, would roll out a pricing model that features family-friendly programming in early 2006. Cable operators are hopeful the move will help derail the Federal Communications Commission’s support for a plan that would give consumers even more choice over what cable channels they could purchase individually.

“Offering a Family Tier to our customers is one more step in Comcast’s efforts to provide a broad array of family-friendly programming,” Steve Burke, the company’s chief operating officer, said in a news release. The company said its family selections “primarily feature TV-G content” and “meet existing contractual programming requirements.”

Comcast’s Family Tier bundle is expected to cost $14.95, while the Time Warner Cable Family Choice package will be priced at $12.99.

The family tiers are an add-on to both Comcast and Time Warner basic service tiers, which the companies say federal law requires, with households required to pay a monthly fee for a digital cable set-top box.

The basic service tier, which customers must buy if they are to have cable in their home, includes local broadcast stations and public/educational and government access channels.

This required tier includes Fox Broadcasting Company, whose programs are often targeted by family activists for their offensive content, plus ABC, CBS, NBC, UPN, WB and PBS.

Time Warner’s announcement prompted Brent Bozell of the Parents Television Council to charge that the company is “deliberately offering a product designed to fail.” Bozell noted that, according to Time Warner, no family would want to watch sports, classic movies, religious programming or “any news channel other than Time Warner’s CNN.” Comcast also lacks a sports channel on its family tier.

Channels such as Animal Planet, History Channel, Travel Channel, the Game Show Network and ESPN that are not on either company’s family tier are “appropriate for family viewing,” Bozell continued, calling Time Warner’s family tier “a very bad joke” and more evidence that “it is families, not the industry, that should decide what is appropriate family programming.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “If nothing else, this announcement by Comcast and Time Warner reminds us that the final responsibility for a family’s welfare rests with parents.

“Existing technology within cable boxes, as well as the v-chip within most televisions, allows parents to control what programs can be seen on the television in their home,” Land said.

“Parents understand the importance of controlling their families’ television viewing even if they don’t grasp the power of the technology they literally have in their hands,” he continued, citing a recent survey that showed nine out of 10 parents use some type of control to manage what their children see on TV.

The poll, conducted by Russell Research in mid-November, revealed most parents rely on their presence in the room to control what is on the set. A much smaller number, 17 percent, report using cable controls; fewer still, 5 percent, utilize their TV’s V-Chip as a tool to regulate what programs their children watch.

The V-Chip, installed in televisions beginning in 2000 at the government’s insistence, allows shows to be blocked using the program’s rating and parameters established by parents.

“The more choices parents have, the more empowered they are to make the best choices for their family,” Land said.

Land also indicated he was pleased that Comcast included a faith-based channel in its family tier offering.

Glenn Britt, chairman and CEO of Time Warner, said the company’s Family Choice Tier was designed “so viewers could be reasonably assured that no objectionable programs would turn up in the mix.

“Accordingly, 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.”

Channels like the Cartoon Network didn’t make the cut, as the network serves two distinctly different audiences depending on the time of day: family-friendly animated fare during the day and more mature content on its nighttime schedule. Nickelodeon, meanwhile, often includes the “Roseanne” television program on its “Nick at Nite” feature.

For the most part, the big players in the cable industry eschew offering consumers the ability to pick and choose which programs they want to receive, often called a la carte.

“A la carte is the nuclear option,” said Josh Bernoff, a cable research analyst, told Variety. “It would destroy the economic foundation of the entire cable industry,” he continued.

Some in the religious community have expressed opposition to the a la carte option, fearing that channels with smaller audiences, like most faith-based channels, would be at risk of losing their place on the cable dial under that pricing scenario.

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  • Dwayne Hastings