Parental Control

TV’s new campaign is big but doesn’t quiet calls for à la carte
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The TV industry unveiled its $300 million content- control campaign last week in the hope of educating parents and getting critics and regulators off their backs.

The campaign, which includes a Website, public-service announcements and literature to help parents take more control of programming on their TV sets,

may take a while to catch on. Although the campaign got a benediction from the co-chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee, the early read from a key activist group and the FCC is that it is not going to quiet the drumbeat for cable à la carte, one of the key fights cable is looking to avoid.

The thrust of the campaign is to inform parents that they already have the power and the responsibility to control content themselves. Parents Television Council (PTC), for one, is not appeased.

Dan Isett, director of corporate affairs for PTC, one of the prime movers behind the government content crackdown, calls the campaign “a different bunch of people saying exactly the same thing, and they don’t mean what they say,” since they aren’t willing to give parents real control, which he says is cable choice.

An FCC official, asking not to be identified, is generally pleased with the campaign but suggests that it falls short of the mark. Chairman Kevin Martin’s philosophy remains that viewers shouldn’t have to pay for the programs they are blocking, the official says, citing the V-chip, designed to block unsavory content, as “a good solution but not a silver bullet.” Fewer than half the TV sets in the country have V-chips (119 million versus the 280 million total), and sports programming—the Super Bowl, for example—is unrated and thus beyond the reach of the chip.

The campaign, created under the direction of former MPAA President Jack Valenti, is tagged to the Website thetvboss.org. “The boss” is a TV remote. Sponsoring the new effort are the studios, cable and broadcast trade associations, broadcast networks, consumer-electronics manufacturers, and the Ad Council.

The Website provides information about existing content-control mechanisms, such as cable-channel blocking, the V-chip/ratings system, and creating a “media plan” and guidelines for kids’ viewing.

Valenti told the Senate Commerce Committee in a briefing last week that he can not guarantee the result but “it would not be for lack of trying.” Both Co-Chairmen Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) give the effort their blessing and promise to encourage all their colleagues to put information on their Websites linking to thetvboss.org.

REGULATION STILL ON THE TABLE

Stevens says the effort came just in time, pointing to the pressure to regulate. “I hope it will succeed,” he says, “because we have the demands from some people to legislate and it’s awfully difficult to define decency and, more than that, to find the constitutional powers to do it.”

But even he says that more content regulation is not off the table. Asked whether the campaign satisfies the need for regulation, he says not necessarily but it gives the industry the opportunity to “assure our members that it won’t be necessary to legislate. This is just postponing a consideration of bills that have been introduced that will go further than the fines.”

The campaign tries to counter one widely held opinion: the difficulty of programming the V-chip. In contrast to the daunting pages-long instructions in some TV manuals, the Website advertises an “easy” six-step process for activating the chip, although it also counsels surfers to check their owners’ manual.

The humorous PSAs, created pro bono by McCann-Erickson, show parents taking active steps to control their kids’ TV watching.

The first spot unveiled on the Website, a spot even Isett concedes is witty, features a parody of The Sopranos. A mother tells a Tony Soprano knock-off and his henchfolk that his whacking “Vinnie” in the head with a shovel is too graphic for the kids and she will have to block it. Anther features a “druggie” who is told that his plotline is too adult and also must be blocked.

The campaign is not just to educate parents that the blocking technology is available but to encourage them to actually block the content they don’t want their kids to see.

Joyce Thomas, McCann-Erickson chief creative officer, explains the approach: “We did not want to wag our fingers at parents. We did not want to suggest that the content they view is inappropriate. What we are saying is that not all the content that you view is appropriate for your children. We used popular TV genres—like murder mysteries and urban dramas with drug use—as examples.”

The campaign sends viewers to the Website for information. What about the viewers who don’t have a broadband connection to search out the technological fixes? “Parents can 'block’ inappropriate programming many ways,” she says, “including turning the channel or turning the TV off, for starters.”

The networks say they have committed $300 million in donated airtime to the campaign—”unsold airtime,” says Isett—which will extend to TV, radio, print and Web advertising.

The campaign was spearheaded by Valenti, who created the movie-ratings system more than 30 years ago to stave off content regulation of that medium.

À LA CARTE OR FAMILY TIER

The FCC does not regulate cable indecency, but Martin has backed mandated à la carte as one way to give parents more control of programming lineups, an approach the cable industry says would wreak havoc with its business model and threaten niche channels. The industry has already begun offering family-friendly tiers, again at the urging of government.

Broadcasters face far heavier fines for indecency after Congress raised them ten-fold to a maximum $325,000 per violation. Isett suggests that will help keep them in check but adds that the job won’t be done until there is cable à la carte, the opportunity for consumers to pay for only those channels they watch instead of for a package of channels.

As promised, Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), on the same day that the campaign was being pitched, introduced a bill that would give cable a “column A, B, C” choice of content regulation. It has little chance of passage. But then, some people said the Super Bowl incident would blow over.

The bill is titled the Family Choice Act, the preferred term for à la carte cable with groups like Parents Television Council, which backs the legislation and touted it in advance to the press.

Asserting that “indecent programming on channels carried on extended basic-cable service is pervasive” and that the V-chip does not “effectively protect children from indecent programming,” the bill’s authors would essentially give the FCC the power to regulate cable content in one of several ways.

Pay-TV providers would be required to 1) abide by FCC broadcast-indecency standards, 2) scramble any channel subscribers don’t want, except their local TV stations, or 3) offer channels individually or in a family tier that excludes all channels that air TV-14– or TV-MA–rated content between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The family tier would still exclude ESPN unless it chose to put shows like the profanity-peppered Bobby Knight bio on after 10 p.m. The exclusion of ESPN has been cited by some family-tier fans as the industry’s attempt to make the tier unattractive.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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