03.26.2004 12:00 AM
Sachs to Regulators: Don't Tread on Cable Content
With lawmakers and regulators breathing down the neck of the cable TV industry over issues like must-carry, a la carte channel packaging and content restrictions, the industry's chief envoy executed an offensive maneuver worthy of his $1.2 million salary.

Robert Sachs, head of the National Cable Television Association, used a high-profile meeting of cable flacks in the nation's capital to unveil a plan to allow cable subscribers to block programming they consider offensive. Sachs, speaking to the Cable Television Public Affairs Association, said cable operators serving about 85 percent of all subscribers will make channel-blocking technology available upon request, free of charge, for those who don't have V-chip enabled TVs or digital boxes -- roughly half of the country's 70.5 million cable subscribers.

Just what the blocking technology consists of will be up to individual cable companies, according to published reports. The most common way is to install filter on the cable connection outside the house, something for which the companies currently charge. Sachs also reiterated cable's support of the sometimes abstruse TV rating system, which can at least be interpreted by a V-chip, if not a human being. (The system was summarily throttled by critics when it was introduced in 1997.)

To that end, cable will support a new Web site that includes links to information explaining the rating system, plus other helpful hints on how people can protect themselves from their televisions. ControlYourTV.org includes instructions about how to program parental control technology, descriptions of the ratings system and V-chip technology, a sampling of TV shows appropriate for children and a list of media literacy resources.

"No one wants policymakers to have to choose between protecting children or preserving the First Amendment," Sachs told the choir. "So if we, as an industry, actively promote the choices and controls available to consumers, there will be no need for anyone to do so."

Sachs delivered his self-regulatory salvo just two days before Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) convened a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee over rising cable rates. For some time, McCain has been agitating for cable operators to provide channels a la carte, something that Cox President Jim Robbins testified would cost the industry, and ultimately subscribers, as much as $40 billion. While McCain was unable to muster enough support to codify a la carte legislation, the issue is far from dead.

McCain promised to attach legislation to a spending bill at some point, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-N.J.) told "The Washington Post," "Letters have been streaming into my office...I don't hear as much about highlighted issues, like gay marriage...as I do about rising cable rates."

When the hearing turned to the possibility of regulating cable content the same as broadcast content, Robbins blasted.

"We need to fix our own problems," he said. "We don't need your help to do so."


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