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Indecency Legislation Likely, But Not Soon

Lawmakers continue to pressure on the TV industry to clean up its act or have the government do it for them--perhaps. During a second hearing on content indecency held by the Senate Commerce Committee, the handful of lawmakers who attended were split on passing content legislation. Some anticipate a hornet's nest of First Amendment issues legislation would likely provoke.

"As I've said, whatever we mandate is going to go to court," said Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "Whatever we reach by consensus is going to happen now."

A good deal has already happened since the first hearing--actually a forum--held last November, when Stevens launched his call for voluntary industry action. With four content regulation bills stuck in his committee, Stevens brought together TV industry operatives to seek alternatives to legislation. Since then, two of the largest cable operators have launched tiers of family-friendly programming and a parental-control education campaign has gained legs.

More initiatives were unveiled at Thursday's hearing. EchoStar (opens in new tab) chief Charlie Ergen announced DishFamily, a new family-conscious programming tier to become available Feb. 1 on Dish systems. DishFamily will offer 32 channels (see list below) and retail for $19.99; local broadcast channels are an additional $5. DirecTV (opens in new tab) also released its family programming package, to be available in mid-April. The DirecTV Total Choice Family package will include more than 40 channels (also below) including local broadcast channels, for $34.99.

Jack Valenti, the extraordinarily eloquent former movie lobby chief, announced that industry players had agreed to step up parental-control education to the tune of as much as $300 million. Under an arrangement brokered by Valenti, the Ad Council will create public service announcements instructing people on the use of currently available blocking technology, the most ubiquitous being the V-chip. Distributors have agreed to air the messages for 18 months. Retailers will also pass out written materials, which will also be shared with churches. Additionally, content ratings will be shown out of every commercial instead of just the opening of a program.

"Every parent in America has the total power to control all the television that is dispatched to their homes--today," Valenti said. "Don't torment and torture the First Amerndment."

The bills that remain stuck in the Commerce committee for lack of votes include H.R. 310, which increases fines from $32,500 to $500,000 for each violation up to $3 million a day, and mandates license revocation hearings and performer fines. Stevens said the bill "seems extreme." Another, S. 193, merely increases fines, which is something Stevens said he supported. The third bill, S. 616 addresses content violence. It would give the FCC 60 days to figure out if children are protected by current technology; if not, the commission would be instructed to slap further restrictions on video distributors. The violence bill was introduced last March by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who would still like to see content violence addressed. So would Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) The fourth bill, S. 946, requires "kid friendly" programming. None of the bills have had the necessary 60 votes to pass the full Senate, and Stevens said the committee would likely address Internet porn before passing a TV bill.

He also reiterated his intention to look into retransmission consent after testimony from Ergen, who said broadcasters tie carriage of their cable networks with retransmission of O&Os. That's why, he said, distributors were limited on what they could put on a family tier. (Several senators had mentioned the absence of ESPN on the new family tiers, but Stevens pointed out that ESPN is not rated and therefore does not meet the criteria under which the tiers were created.)

Broadcasters who have negotiated with Ergen said they'd be happy to do retrans-for-cash deals, but like most pay TV distributors, he's refused. CBS tried to do a 50 cents-per-subscriber, per-month deal with DISH in 2000, but it was rebuffed, so CBS continued to angle carriage for the Viacom cable nets in return for retrans. However, now that CBS is divorced from Viacom, cash-for-retrans will likely make a powerful resurgence.

The latest family tier lineups include:

Animal Planet
Outdoor Channel
The Biography Channel
Food Network
Bloomberg TV
Fox News Channel
CNN Headline News
Discovery Kids
Discovery Times
Do It Yourself Network
Great American Country
Nick Games & Sports
Nickelodean (East & West)
Shop at Home
The Science Channel
The Weather Channel
TV Land

DirecTV Total Choice Family Package
Bloomberg TV
CNN Headline News
Discovery Kids
Disney East
Disney West
DIY Network
Food Network
Hallmark Channel
Link TV
National Geographic Channel
Nick at Night (East & West)
NRB Network
Once TV
PBS Kids Sprout
Shop at Home
Shop NBC
TCT Network
The Science Channel
The Weather Channel
Toon Disney
Trinity Broadcasting Network
Word Network
World Harvest Network
XM Disney Radio
XM Kids