- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The broadcasting industry should provide parents with more flexible cable and satellite purchasing options to help them protect children from indecent programming, before it becomes a government requirement, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday.

Parents must be the first line of defense, but broadcasters also are responsible and government oversight should occur only when the other two have failed, Mr. Martin said during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee forum on decency in the media.

Mr. Martin outlined numerous possible approaches to the problem, including:

• Creating family-friendly program tiers that don’t bundle channels like Nickelodeon with others that air racier content;

• Allowing subscribers to buy channels individually with their choices priced accordingly;



• Making basic and expanded cable service adhere to the same indecency rules currently reserved for broadcast networks.

He did not endorse any proposal, but when asked directly if the FCC should be given the authority to enforce decency standards on cable and satellite providers, Mr. Martin said Congress should decide because “something should be done to address programming issues parents have raised.”

A report completed last year when Michael Powell was FCC chairman found individually purchased, called “a la carte,” or tiered programming would not be cost-effective for consumers and could result in the shuttering of certain cable channels that rely on bundling to stay afloat.

Mr. Martin said those conclusions were based on flawed methodology and biased analysis, and that a new report concludes both options are economically feasible and in consumers’ best interests.

Mr. Powell disputed his successor’s assertions: “I thought the report last year was perfectly sound and the data unquestionably led to the conclusion that we reached.”

“If there were errors in the reports, I disagree that they were [severe] enough to discount the conclusions completely,” said Mr. Powell, now a senior adviser at Providence Equity Partners Inc., an investment firm. He added that a Government Accountability Office report came to the same conclusions as last year’s FCC report.

Debating data methodology was a “red herring” because Mr. Martin has long been an advocate of tiered and a la carte programming options, Mr. Powell said, adding that the new FCC report “supports [that] policy direction.”

Stations such as ESPN, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel would survive a move to an a la carte model, but that diverse programming offered on channels such as BET, Bravo and the Golf Channel don’t have enough of an audience as stand-alone products, Mr. Powell said.

Kyle McSlarrow, president and chief executive of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), called a government mandate of a la carte programming a “very dangerous idea” that violates providers’ free-speech rights.

He compared it with requiring newspapers to sell their sports and business sections separately.

“I urge everybody to take the idea of government mandates off the table,” Mr. McSlarrow said.

But some lawmakers are calling for stiffer penalties and new programming options. The House has passed a bill that would raise the maximum fine the FCC can issue per indecency violation from $32,500 to $500,000. The Senate is considering a similar bill as well as other legislation that would require cable and satellite providers to offer family-friendly programming.

“My impression is that the cable industry is complicit in promoting pornography and sexually explicit material in our homes,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat. He said he has two young children at home and “my wife and I are scared to death for them to turn on the television when we’re not in the room.”

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