Barton Seconds Cable-Content Challenge


House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said Tuesday that he, too, supports regulating indecency on cable.

He was echoing the sentiments of Senate Energy and Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, who earlier in the day told a group of broadcasters assembled by NAB for a Hill meet-and-greet that he wanted to crack down on cable indecency.

Broadcasters applauded the sentiment, having concluded that if they are not going to get out from under content regulation, they want a level playing field with their competitors.

The cable industry, not surprisingly, responded with a pledge to fight any effort to regulate its content.

Asked why he didn't support adding cable regulation to the House indecency enforcement bill that just passed, Barton pointed to the constitutional problems (similar amendments helped submarine an indecency enforcement bill in the last Congress). But he said that if a Senate bill included extending indecency regulation on cable, he would be willing to negotiate. "Let's see what the Senate is willing to do."

At the moment, the Senate bill, as proposed by Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is actually "cleaner" than the House version, containing only a 10-fold increase in the  maximum fine to $325,000 and a cap on a single incident at $3 million.

The House bill raises the fine to $500,000, but also contains provisions on license renewals, a "shot clock" for FCC action, and reports to Congress from the FCC and GAO.

The two-pronged challenge to cable's content control did not sit well with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

"We believe any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendment objections and will oppose efforts to impose regulation on cable programming," said VP, communications, Brian Dietz. "As the U.S. Supreme Court has found, the subscription nature of cable service, and the ability of cable customers to block unwanted programming through the use of tools offered by local cable systems, strongly differentiate cable from broadcasting, which is distributed free and unfiltered over the air." 

Dietz also argued that cable already has various channel blocking tools available to subscribers and has undertaken a wide-ranging PSA campaign to educate parents on their options for controlling content.