Sen. Ted Stevens, the new Commerce Committee chairman, would like pay television to be subject to the same indecency regulations that govern over-the-air broadcasts.
Currently, the FCC has the authority to fine only over-the-air radio and television broadcasters for violating its indecency regulations, which forbid airing sexual or excretory material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely watching.
But Stevens (R-Alaska) told a group of broadcasters last week that he wants to extend that authority to cover the hundreds of cable and satellite television and radio channels that operate outside of the government’s control. In addition to basic cable channels such as ESPN, Discovery and MTV, that would include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime and the two satellite radio services, XM and Sirius.
Last year, as the Senate considered a bill raising indecency fines for broadcast, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) — who has retired — proposed an amendment that would have extended the indecency rules to cable. Stevens voted against the amendment and it failed, 12 to 11. However, Stevens opposed Breaux’s amendment because he thought it was being used as a way to kill the bill raising the fines, a Stevens staff member told the Washington Post.
The government has resisted policing cable in the past, citing First Amendment hurdles to governing content that consumers pay for rather than receive free. But Stevens said he thought the Supreme Court, which ruled that cable systems must carry local television station signals, would also require cable to follow broadcast decency standards.
The cable industry, wary of regulation, said its self-policing is sufficient.
In the House, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the Post he supported equal treatment of cable networks and would talk to Stevens about possible legislation.
There are bills in both houses of Congress that would substantially increase the amount the FCC could fine over-the-air broadcasters for indecency, increasing the maximum $32,500 penalty to as much as $500,000 in the House version of the bill, passed last month. That bill also includes a provision that would force broadcasters to face license-revocation hearings after a third indecency violation, which Stevens supports.
Some said that attempts to regulate cable and satellite might rile opponents to also try to kill the legislation on fines.