Television on the Family Plan

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Kevin Martin, the soft-spoken maverick of the FCC, last week joined the policymakers and citizen activists pounding out a drumbeat for more family-oriented TV.

The Bush-appointed Republican called on broadcast networks and cable operators to carve out G-rated programming packages. With the concern about objectionable programming expressed two weeks ago by Commission Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, that makes an FCC majority troubled about content.

Whether the agency will act on those concerns remains an open question. FCC Chairman Michael Powell sets the agenda. On a C-SPAN call-in show last Friday, he expressed his own worry over indecent programming, saying he would prefer stiffer penalties for violators, but also reiterated that the commission should take a conservative approach to regulating free speech.

During a NATPE panel discussion in New Orleans, Martin urged broadcast networks to resurrect the old family hour. He also asked cable operators to try something new: a tier of family-friendly shows.

"Devote the first hour of prime time to programs that parents and children can enjoy together," Martin said during a panel session on family-friendly programming. "Give parents one hour, five days a week, when they can turn to broadcast television with comfort, confidence and enthusiasm."

Bring back the code

The original family viewing hour was part of the National Association of Broadcasters Code of Conduct. A provision designating 7-9 p.m. as "family viewing hours" was eliminated in 1976 after the court sided with TV writers, who argued the dictate hindered production of shows that tackled touchy social issues, such as All in the Family. Judges shot down the entire code 1983 when they found that limits on hourly ad time violated antitrust rules.

Martin and others who want to bring back the family hour argue that the idea won't face such a harsh review from courts today. The family hour never raised antitrust issues and the number of cable and broadcast outlets has grown dramatically from the three-network world of 1976, alleviating any concern that edgy shows won't be carried.

The legal problems of the past "don't mean broadcasters couldn't do it today," Martin said in an interview with BROADCASTING & CABLE last week.

Martin stressed that his goal is a voluntary agreement among TV networks "at this stage," but would not say whether a mandate should be pursued if programmers refuse. "I'm just focusing on trying to convince industry to provide better tools for parents on their own."

Martin's entry into the campaign heartened fellow panelist Michael Copps. "It's a serious proposal meriting serious consideration," said Copps after the session. "It would be a wonderful thing for the industry to move on it without the heavy hand of government getting into the act." Copps wants broadcasters to revive the entire code of conduct, but his repeated appeals have failed to stir broadcasters.

The broadcast networks declined comment on Martin's appeal last week, perhaps hoping the latest call for revival would dissipate into the ether as previous ones have.

NAB defends itself

Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) has repeatedly pushed his own version of family-friendly programming by introducing bills in the last five Congresses that would require broadcasters to institute a "safe harbor" time, during which TV stations could not air violent programming. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who chairs the Senate Commerce's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, also has called for ways to rein in TV sex and violence.

As to whether individual TV stations are doing enough, National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said V-Chip channel blocking ratings, which broadcasters must transmit, give parents sufficient power to stop objectionable programming. He also noted that the old broadcasting code has been replaced with an NAB "statement of principles" that calls for stations to air some family-oriented programming.

Martin also said cable and satellite TV operators should make themselves more family friendly. They could offer tiers comprising only family-friendly programming, he said. "Such a package might include ABC Family, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Discovery, History Channel, National Geographic, CNN, Fox News, Food Network, ESPN, and C-SPAN, to name a few."

"Alternately, cable and DBS operators could offer programming in a more a la carte fashion," he said. "They would permit parents to request not to receive certain programming that is part of a package, and they could reimburse the parents for that programming. Parents could then purchase additional channels on an individual basis. The combined result would enable parents to receive (and pay for) only that programming they are comfortable bringing into their home."

National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Rob Stoddard said the V-Chip and cable's leadership in the creation of children's and family-oriented networks has provided parents with tools to ensure that appropriate programming is available to kids.

'Mega-programmers'

Martin counters that the V-chip has had limited adoption by parents and new technologies, such as program guides that allow specific channels to be blocked, are not widely available.

Tiering and a la carte mandates have long been opposed by cable, which argues that well-regarded niche channels such as C-SPAN and BET would go out of business if customers could pick small blocks of channels or individual networks.

During the session, Copps said the concern about excessive violence and indecency in programming is one more reason the FCC should move slowly in the relaxation of ownership restrictions, which would lead to more stations in fewer hands.

Industry consolidation has led to more stations controlled by "mega-programmers" and youth-obsessed advertisers with little interest in the communities that the stations are supposed to serve.

"What do you think will trump their interest or the public interest?" Copps asked.

The commissioner said he does not know what impact further media consolidation will have on the amount of indecency and violence in programming or the availability of family-friendly programming. But before the FCC votes on new rules this spring, Copps said, "we ought to know a lot more about this connection than we do."

For the sake of diversity, the FCC should also give "serious consideration" to proposals that the FCC mandate that the broadcast networks set aside 25% of their prime time schedule for programming in which they had no financial interest. Pushing the plan is a coalition of producers who feel that they cannot get their programming into prime time without giving up interest in the programming to the networks.

Copps said the proposal could be modified into a carve-out for "independently produced family friendly programming."

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