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Cable family proposal less than complete consumer choice

WASHINGTON (BP)–The head of a cable television trade group announced Dec. 12 that several cable companies, including Comcast and Time-Warner, would roll out a pricing model that would feature a “family-friendly” programming bundle in early 2006. The move is expected to forestall a push by some to have the Federal Communications Commission force cable operators to give consumers even more choice.

Comcast and Time-Warner, the nation’s largest cable operators, said rates and content for the “family choice” tiers of programming have not yet been determined, although they are expected to require a digital cable subscription.

Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, told Senate Commerce Committee members the cable industry is willing to move forward in developing a model that offers a grouping of family-friendly channels to cable customers in hopes that it would “take mandates off the table.”

Cable television operators have been pressured to offer consumers an a la carte pricing model that would allow families to decide which channels they want to purchase and which channels they don’t want. Some industry experts said companies’ willingness to offer the family tiers is an attempt to head off a government mandate that cable systems allow customers to select only the channels they want to receive.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin warned cable and satellite programmers in a special Nov. 29 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to provide more effective measures for families to pre-select programming or face possible regulation by the federal government.

“Parents need better and more tools to help them navigate the entertainment waters, particularly on cable and satellite TV,” Martin said, citing the increasing problem of “coarse programming on cable and satellite.”

Martin said the cable industry has a “responsibility to empower parents by offering them more and more effective tools with which to supervise their children’s TV watching,” suggesting cable companies “offer an exclusively family-friendly programming package” or “offer programming in a more a la carte manner” in addition to the “broadcast basic package of must-carry stations.”

The family tier is a “good alternative to a really bad idea,” said media analyst Mike Goodwin, as reported Dec. 13 by Dow Jones Newswires. He told the news service he expects only a small number of households would opt for the family-tier package.

“The reality is that people don’t want them, there’s a vocal minority that is for family Christian values,” Goodwin said, adding, “The majority of people either don’t care, can’t be bothered, or want the programming.”

Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said the “family-choice” tier announcement is a “positive and encouraging sign” and a hopeful indication that “these media giants are at least hearing the objections of parents and others,” but he wondered aloud if the cable companies would be capable of exercising “good judgment” in building the family-friendly tier of programs.

Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, emphasized the availability of this special bundle of cable channels “will not alleviate parents’ responsibility to monitor carefully their children’s television viewing habits.”

A consortium of religious broadcasters, Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, expressed fear that the a la carte pricing model might push niche broadcasters off the cable dial, as cable companies would have a bottom-line motive in determining which channels they offer and which they drop. These broadcasters have expressed concern about the impact it would have on their financial support and the audience they are seeking to reach.

Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Colby May of the American Center for Law & Justice have expressed support for the family-tier model, while representatives of Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family opposed the cable industry’s announced plan, expressing a distrust of cable operators and their ability to determine what is “family-friendly.”

Comcast, the largest U.S. cable television company, is opposed to a la carte channel offerings as is Time-Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable operator.

“Mandatory a la carte would be potentially very troublesome for our goal of universal deployment of broadband services,” said McSlarrow, of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Nov. 29, noting that studies indicate “government pay-per-channel regulation would be likely to hurt consumers by increasing prices, decreasing choice and reducing diversity in programming, and it would do so in a way that violates the First Amendment.”

The industry consensus is that a la carte pricing might give consumers more options but would spike their cable rates and prompt cable operators to drop less attractive, niche channels. Yet smaller cable operators, such as Cablevision, indicated their willingness to offer an across-the-board a la carte pricing model.

At least one well-known crusader for decency on television wants the cable industry to go beyond their planned family-programming bundles.

“The cable networks are now suggesting family tiers as a ‘solution’ for consumers who don’t want to fund raunchy cable programming that they are currently forced to subsidize. It’s a positive gesture, but it’s not a positive step,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council. “Family tiers are not the same as providing consumers with cable choice, the ability to take and pay for only what they want. The cable industry is throwing up family tiers as a ‘red herring’ rather than having to face the real marketplace of fed-up consumers.”

Even if the cable industry sidesteps the piecemeal pricing plans now, the future is bright for those who want to pick and choose the channels to which they subscribe. Younger consumers, who will soon have the technology on their iPods or other personal video devices integrating video, voice, Internet and wireless capabilities, including content typically only received on cable TV, will demand the option of selecting the channels they want to access.

Further proof is in the growing interest of upstart telecommunications companies to use the phone line, copper or fiber optic, to bring programming into U.S. homes. These companies, knowing they must compete with the entrenched cable operators, realize they have to provide enhanced services and content to attract customers.

FCC Chairman Martin hinted that unless cable companies provide consumers more options to screen out offensive channels, much of their programming “could be subject to the same indecency regulations that currently only apply to broadcast.”

Whether the cable industry moves forward with family tier or a la carte models, the last line of defense for families resides in the home, most family advocates agree. The ABC Network’s popular “Desperate Housewives” program is the most popular broadcast television show among children ages 9-12, according to Nielsen research. All you need is a television and a pair of rabbit ears, i.e. an antenna, to watch that program. No new pricing model will impact its reception; only watchful parents.

A March 2005 Pew Research Center survey revealed 75 percent of adults polled would favor tighter enforcement of government rules on broadcast content, particularly when children are most likely to be watching. Six out of 10 believe broadcast television decency standards should be extended to cable TV.

Yet Congress has failed to act on legislation that would toughen broadcast standards.

Nearly two years after the Janet Jackson “equipment malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime broadcast on CBS, debate over legislation dealing with broadcast indecency continues. The House and the Senate passed legislation last year that stiffened penalties for the broadcast of “obscene, indecent, and profane material,” but the two bodies failed to reach a consensus in conference committee. The House passed the Broadcast Decency Act in February, but the Senate has failed to act on the matter.

Nearly 90 percent of all situation comedies on television included sexual content, according to a study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Few of the shows included any reference to the risks or responsibilities of promiscuous sexual behavior.

“The television networks have proven to be poor stewards of the broadcast airwaves,” Bozell, of the Parents Television Council, said during the Nov. 29 Senate forum. “They clearly cannot be trusted to be responsible with the content and messages they are communicating to young viewers. Instead, they hide behind a faulty ratings system and the empty rhetoric of artistic freedom.”

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  • Dwayne Hastings