TV biz's family focus derails smut bills

  • 2comments

Negotiations among cable operators over so-called "family tiers" and talk among the TV industry's players about ways to clarify the ratings system are likely to delay passage of legislation to clean up the airwaves.

Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told reporters that he had no intention of moving any of the four bills aimed at TV smut as long as the negotiations appeared to be bearing fruit.

"I'd say no need for legislation now. We have to give it a chance to work and see if it works," he said. "We're not going to start regulating the industry to the extent of saying people cannot produce these things that I do not want to see, because there are people out there who do want to see them. But, we ought to prevent those from being taken into the American home so they can be exposed to children to the extent possible."

Stevens' remarks followed a Senate forum in which the National Cable and Telecommunications Association chief said that several cable systems are attempting to develop a smut-free package of channels.

NCTA president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow told Stevens and Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, that several cable systems had joined Comcast Communications and Time Warner Cable in an effort to develop the family tiers. Comcast and Time Warner said last week at an investor conference that they wanted to develop the tiers.

In addition to Comcast and Time Warner, Insight, Advance-Newhouse, and Midcontinent have committed to developing the tiers, McSlarrow said. He estimated that those companies reached half of the nation's cable households.

Pricing, programming, and other details have yet to be worked out, but McSlarrow said that he expected at least some of the systems to firm up the idea in first-quarter 2006. The family tiers would be made available only to digital cable customers, McSlarrow said. Somewhere between 35 and 45 percent of the nation's cable customers are digital cable subscribers.

Despite the sketchy plans, Stevens said he was impressed by recent announcements that cable operators were attempting to develop a "family-friendly" tier and that an effort was being made to help parents come to grips with the under-used TV ratings system.

"I can't sit here today and tell you what that will look like," he said. "These are individual company decisions. They are subject to negotiations with programmers, and they are likely to work different from one system to another."

Meanwhile, Hollywood's former top lobbyist Jack Valenti told lawmakers that discussions about ways to tie the TV ratings system more closely to the movie ratings system are moving ahead. Stevens charged Valenti with leading those talks as he was the main force behind the movie and TV systems in his former capacity as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, the lobbying arm of the major studios.

"We're hard at work trying to make parents better understand that they have total control today over what individual programs they allow into their homes," Valenti said. "We want to show a closer rapport between the TV ratings system and the movie ratings system."

The TV ratings system has been criticized recently for being too complicated, leading to low use of the V-chip, which blocks programming using the system.

While Valenti agreed to lead the talks, he cautioned lawmakers against being heavy-handed.

"Neither the Congress nor the FCC can strip away from the people their right to choose whatever they want to see, or hear, or watch," he said. "It's in the long-term interest of this country to make sure the Congress and regulatory agencies do not intrude in the rights that are writ large in the Constitution."

Like TV.com on Facebook