Bill could force control of pay-TV content

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives last week introduced the Family and Consumer Choice Act, a bill that would force pay-TV providers to alter their billing policies and programming lineups.

The bill’s co-sponsors are Reps. Daniel Lipinski, D-IL, and Jeff Fortenberry, R-NE. At a press conference announcing the legislation last week, FCC chairman Kevin Martin joined the two congressmen in support of the legislation, which purports to give families greater protection against “coarse” and “indecent” content. Lipinski introduced a similar bill last year, but it received little support from fellow lawmakers and didn’t get a hearing.

The legislation would compel cable and satellite operators to choose among one of three options. One, they could agree to extend the same rules that apply to the core broadcast channels to the channels in the expanded basic programming tier. That would mean they agree not to air violent or “indecent” programming when children are most likely to be watching. A safe harbor without the restrictions would be set between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The second option would be to expand the so-called family friendly tier of channels to include all the channels in the expanded basic tier minus those that broadcast programming inappropriate for children. These would include the channels airing the most popular news and sports shows, which currently often are excluded from family tiers.

The final option would be for cable operators to offer a la carte programming. If parents didn’t want to receive a specific channel, they would be able to ask their TV provider to block it and would not be charged for it.

The cable industry reacted negatively. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), cable’s lobby organization, said, “overwhelming evidence shows that a mandated a la carte regime would result in higher prices and less diversity in programming, overturning a video marketplace that provides U.S. consumers with the widest variety of programming found anywhere in the world.”