Sex, drugs and cable TV

Under pressure from the FCC, cable companies will offer a "family-choice" package. But will anyone pay for TV without "South Park" and "Sex and the City"?

By Michael Scherer
Published December 12, 2005 10:45PM (EST)

Kevin Martin took the helm of the Federal Communications Commission this March with a clear mission: to crack down on basic cable's most violent, vulgar and scantily clad programs. Time and again, he warned the industry that the status quo would not stand. Americans should not have to pay for ribald skits on Comedy Central or MTV, he argued, if all they wanted was to watch the Iraq war on CNN or penguins on the Discovery Channel. The cable industry, for its part, fought back against his threats, warning of protracted lawsuits and spiraling cable costs. Until Monday, no one knew who would blink first.

At a morning hearing, some of the nation's biggest cable providers caved to Martin's demands. Starting next year, they will offer a "family-choice" plan of basic cable programming to consumers. No longer will households be forced to pay for Jon Stewart and "South Park" in order to get access to Anderson Cooper and SpongeBob SquarePants. Cable companies have volunteered to make the changes, removing from the table a possible legal challenge on First Amendment grounds. But industry observers say the new pricing system is the direct result of government pressure. "There is an element of regulatory extortion at work here," says Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "Everybody in town knows that."

Specifically, FCC chairman Martin is rumored to have pushed for the new family tier as he mulled his approval of the sale of Adelphia Communications to Time Warner Cable and Comcast, the nation's two largest cable operators. Coincidentally, Time Warner and Comcast led the charge for the new family-choice pricing system. Four smaller cable providers, Advance/Newhouse, Insight, Midcontinent and Bresnan, will also offer family plans. Approval of the Adelphia deal is expected in a matter of months.

At the same time, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has been applying his own pressure on the industry, even threatening new regulations at a roundtable discussion on the issue last month. On Monday, he appeared to take pleasure in the fact that the industry was finally coming around to a compromise. At the beginning of the hearing, Sen. Stevens squared off with Kyle McSlarrow, the tough-talking president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. "Have you got anything you would like to tell us?" Stevens asked.

McSlarrow dutifully explained the changes. But he made it clear that the industry still strongly opposes any direct government regulation of cable content. "These individual decisions made by cable operators were not easy decisions," McSlarrow explained. In the past, the industry has argued that the economic model of basic cable, which provides dozens of channels at one price, depended on giving some households channels they would not watch. From his downtown office, FCC chairman Martin quickly offered his blessing for the deal. "I am pleased," he said in a statement. "Offering a family-friendly package has always been one of the options I supported."

For most of the industry, the family-friendly cable package is the least onerous of Martin's three proposals to change cable television. Martin had also suggested extending broadcast television indecency rules to cover basic cable and requiring cable operators to offer "à la carte" channels, a system in which households could purchase each cable station separately. Those other options are likely to be tabled for the time being. "It looks like the cable has dodged a digital TV bullet," said Jeff Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy. "And meanwhile, lawmakers are assured that they have funds coming from the television industry for the 2006 races."

However, Dan Isett, director of government affairs for the Parents Television Council, a conservative watchdog group with ties to the religious right, said PTC is still not satisfied with the cable industry's peace offering. "It's a good step, but it doesn't do anything about the fundamental problem," said Isett, noting that there are still many shows filled with mature content. He also worries about how family-friendly programming will be defined. For instance, Isett said cable providers' family plans should not include channels like ABC Family, which shows PG-13 movies, Cartoon Network, which has late-night adult-themed cartoons, and TBS, which shows edited reruns of the HBO hit "Sex and the City."

If the new family plans catch on, the biggest loser in the new deal is likely to be Viacom, which operates several of the cable stations with the raciest content, including MTV, BET, Comedy Central, VH1 and Logo, a nascent channel that targets the gay and lesbian market. Family groups have also assailed original shows like "Nip/Tuck" and "The Shield" on F/X, which is owned by News Corp., as well as weekly WWE wrestling programs, which are shown on several different basic cable networks. The new family plans could pressure those cable channels into censoring some of their shows, or risk the loss of cable fees and viewers.

But it remains unclear how popular the new family option will be. Though violence and sex on television has long been a hot topic in Congress, consumers have shown little interest in taking advantage of available channel-blocking technology, like the V-chip. A few years ago, satellite provider DirecTV offered a family-choice tier of about 10 channels for just $5 each month. The program was folded after a short time because there was little consumer interest. "We didn't hear anything from our subscribers that they missed in any way the stand-alone tier," a DirecTV spokesman told the trade publication Satellite Business News. In fact, no one seemed to notice the change.

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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South Park Ted Stevens