WASHINGTON – Television executives and senators debated Thursday who should protect children from indecent programming.
TV executives pointed to parents,but others said Congress and the industry need to give families more help.
Members of the Commerce,Science and Transportation Committee began the forum by discussing legislation that would increase maximum fines the Federal Communications Commission could impose on broadcasters from $32,500 to $500,000.
Jack Valenti,former president of the Motion Picture Association of America,proposed increasing public knowledge of the V-chip,which is embedded in all new TV sets and can block specific programs based on their television ratings.
He called the blocking system “remarkable,” adding,“it is simple and even a technological innocent like myself can get the hang of it. … And the beauty of this … is that we don't torment and torture the First Amendment – the best way to do this is voluntary.”
Charles Ergen,chief executive officer of EchoStar Communications,and David Cohen,vice president of Comcast,agreed with Valenti. They outlined their companies' plans for cable tier programming,which will offer packages that do not contain “indecent programming.”
As of Feb. 1,EchoStar's DISH Network will provide family packages for $19.99 a month,while Comcast will have a $31 monthly package. But the range of programs offered in these bundles concerned several of the seven senators at the meeting.
“I understand that the initial family packages will not include sports programming,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg,D-N.J.,said. “No ESPN if you want the family package. Frankly,I don't know why a father should have to choose between protecting their children and being able to watch sports. It almost seems like an invitation to an unmarketable package.”
Ergen blamed conglomerates such as Disney and Time Warner for blocking customers from mixing and matching channels to create their own packages. He suggested binding arbitration to force the companies to unbundle programming.
“These large programmers use this leverage to bundle their programming together and tell distributors like DISH Network,if you want one,you have to take them all,” Ergen said. “Before you know it,we’re carrying channels that our customers don’t watch and don’t want to pay for.”
Brent Bozell,president of the Parents Television Council,condemned the V-chip system and called the television rating systems flawed because the networks themselves rate their own programs. He said that leads to ratings that underplay language,violence and sex because some companies won't buy ads on programs that are rated for mature audiences.
“You are being told that the entertainment industry bears no responsibility when it produces cutting-edge material; that the V-chip,the TV ratings system and parental control devices are enough to protect children; that ultimately it's up to parents to do something about the problem caused by Hollywood,” Bozell said. “But these are dodges. The V-chip is a dodge. So long as the television rating system is a failure,the V-chip will continue to be a failure as well.”
According to data on its Web site,the FCC received 1.4 million complaints about indecent programming in 2004,the year that Janet Jackson's breast was revealed during the Super Bowl halftime show. The agency fined broadcasters $8 million that year. The agency received 166,683 complaints in 2003 and imposed fines of $440,000. Through August last year,the FCC had received 189,362 complaints and had imposed no fines.
As was the case for most of the two-hour forum,the committee reverted to the conundrum of whether the government should oversee the airwaves and cable,which isn't covered by indecency rules.
Sen. Mark Pryor,D-Ark.,questioned if the “regime” over broadcast should reach into the cable world and whether there is a need for an alternate outlet,similar to satellite radio,for television.
“I think the same regime ought to apply,” said Bruce Reese,of the National Association of Broadcasters,which represents television stations but not cable operators. “It will take an act of Congress for this to happen.”