It was a case of tiers to head off fears.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow Monday outlined preliminary plans for a number of cable operators voluntarily to start selling "family tiers." The move is an attempt to head off government-mandated tiering or a la carte cable lineups.
In a Senate Commerce Committee indecency hearing Monday, McSlarrow said that operators representing over half the nation's subs are ready to offer some family-friendly tiers. They are: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Advance-Newhouse, Brennan, Insight and Midcontinent.
He said there would be announcements from one or two of those in the next couple of weeks and that more operators were considering similar moves. He also said first-quarter 2006 is a target for launching some of these tiers, though he said there were still technical issues to be worked out.
Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said the sooner the better because Congress is under pressure from family groups to move legislation that would mandate tiering.
McSlarrow said the individual operators would define family-friendly differently, saying there would be anti-trust issues involved in coming to group decisions on those.
He said he could not say exactly what the tiers would look like but that it would be a case of the mandatory basic service--broadcasters and public-access channels--rather than a choice of the traditional 70 or 80 channels of expanded basic or a digital family tier, though he did not know what form that would take or how it would be priced.
McSlarrow said he hoped that government-mandated tiers would now be off the table because the government would "get it wrong."
He also cautioned that the decisions by the individual operators "were not easy decisions, nor is this an easy place because marketplace negotiations have produced the greatest single engine for diversity or compelling content in the world. That should not be lightly trod upon."
It's not clear what networks might be included in the tiers, particularly whether the most popular ones -- Nickelodeon and Disney Channel -- will be sold in small tiers that could dramatically limit their reach.
At the same hearing, former Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti said he had held three meetings with industry folks in the past two weeks (since an earlier indecency forum) and that the conclusion was to simplify the TV ratings and give parents more information about them.
Valenti said he had been working on behalf of cable, broadcast and movies "trying to make the American parent understand that they have total control over all the visual programming into their home."
Valenti said the industries would take several steps to improve the TV ratings, including:
1. Trying to show a closer rapport between the TV and movie ratings (it wasn't clear how much that would mean changing the TV system to more closely reflect the movie ratings and how much educating about the extent of the current similarities it would involve).
2. Offer more information and educational presentations.
3. Reaching out to TV retailers and manufacturers so that, when a customer comes in to buy a TV set, they realize there is a V-chip in there.
4. Make sure TV icons are readable and on screen for a sufficient length of time.
5. Reach out to community centers and churches to distribute information that shows parents they have control over programming.
6. Enlist the Ad Council's help in spreading the word.
Valenti said what government mustn't do is step in and try to tell people what to see and hear.
Commerce plans to hold another hearing Jan. 19, and Stevens said he hoped McSlarrow could by then be able to hold a demonstration of how the family-friendly tier would work.
Stevens thanked McSlarrow for taking what he called a "leadership position" on the issue, and Valenti for coming out of retirement to head up the ratings effort.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has been stumping for voluntary family tiers, was also happy.
"I am pleased that some cable companies may respond to consumer demand and begin to voluntarily offer family tiers," he said in a statement. "For several years, I have been urging the cable and satellite industry to give parents additional tools to help them address the increasing amount of coarse programming on television. Offering a family-friendly package has always been one of the options I supported.
"I look forward to hearing more about the details of their plans and hope that it will provide parents with real options to address parents’ legitimate concerns with having to purchase programming that they believe is unsuitable for their children."