Tiers for Fears


Facing legislation mandating family-friendly programming tiers and an FCC chairman pledging to clean up cable indecency, cable operators representing more than half the subscribers in the country have pledged to create packages of services that will pass muster with anti-indecency activists like the Parents Television Council (PTC).

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow told Senate Commerce Committee leaders last week that Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Advance/Newhouse, Brennan, Insight and Midcontinent had all agreed to offer a package of family-friendly cable channels.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough for PTC and Concerned Women of America. PTC called the move a red herring and said anything short of à la carte cable—offering a package of individual channels of the viewer's choice—was “unacceptable.”

Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters (1,400 members), also had reservations; he called it a positive step but told B&C that, “if the family tier is not a product people actually want to buy, then this proposal amounts to nothing more than a diversionary tactic by the cable industry to avoid dealing with their growing indecency problem.”

More amenable to the tiers were Jerry Fallwell's Moral Majority and the Faith and Family Coalition, both of which oppose à la carte, arguing it would marginalize religious channels.

The venue for McSlarrow's announcement followed an earlier indecency hearing in which FCC chief Kevin Martin offered the industry a choice among tiers, à la carte, and indecency regulations on the basic-cable tier.

McSlarrow emphasized his point, saying that he hoped government-mandated tiers would now be off the table because the government would “get it wrong.” Still, he was short on details, such as pricing and what channels would qualify as family-friendly.

McSlarrow said the current cable programming model had produced the greatest programming diversity in history and would be altered at some risk. He also pointed out that there remain technical issues to be worked out and alterations to be made on existing program contracts.

He expects many of the new tiers to surface by first quarter 2006. Time Warner announced plans last week (see page 24). Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said the sooner the better because Congress is under pressure from family groups to mandate tiering.

One of the key issues will be whether the channels will be confined to the family tier or duplicated in the expanded-basic package. What qualifies as family-friendly could determine the economic viability of the tiering regime. For instance, ESPN was cited as an offending channel—an expletive-laced Bobby Knight movie was to blame—by PTC in 2004 when it was pitching the FCC on mandating à la carte cable offerings.

If ESPN were not in that family tier, adults would have to forego it, and many other popular channels, in order to “protect” their kids. Giving up sports programming is quite a parental sacrifice, particularly for many dads in the U.S.

Another effort to avoid regulation is a simplified and better-promoted ratings system for cable and broadcast along the lines of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) code. Not surprisingly, the effort is spearheaded by the code's creator, former MPAA President Jack Valenti.

Stevens said that, if the tiering and new ratings system were embraced by the public and activist groups, all four of the pending indecency-related bills before his committee, including increased indecency fines, would not need to go forward.