Willner: Self-Reg, Self-Promote...or Tiers

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Saying cable's content woes were more than a political problem, Insight Communications Chairman Michael Willner advised the industry that unless it can better self-regulate, or self promote, it may have to create family-friendly tiers or accept indecency regulations similar to those of broadcasting.

Willner told the opening session audience of Cable Television Public Affairs Association members in Washington Monday that the content problem was not simply political, but one of real concern to the customers that live "more than 25 miles from a coast."

Willner called on all of the top 50 or 60 cable channels with the widest distribution to do a better job of regulating their own content, though he agreed with panelist Debra Lee of BET that the majority are already doing a good job.

Willner praised last week's cable public relations effort to boost cable's PSAs about content control and upping its commitment to the ratings system, but he said it would be a mistake to think the problem has been dealt with.

When a panelist pointed out that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) last week had threatened there was cable content regulation coming down the pike that would "curl your hair," he said his hair had been curling all week.

When an audience member asked the panel why the industry did not create a family-friendly tier, there was general agreement that a) it is virtually impossible to define family-friendly--Lee pointed out that her son watches MTV, which she considers family-friendly, while others might not--and b) subscribers are already able to create their own tiers of service using the channel blocking technologies available.

Put content controls in the hands of parents,  said Cox COO Patrick Esser, and let them parent. Esser said the company was open to tiers if he thought it was what the viewers wanted, but suggested they can use that content control to make their own tiers.

Henry Schleiff, head of Court TV, agreed with Lee that one person's family may not be the next's and that defining what would go in a family-friendly tier is problematic, pointing out that before the Super bowl, noone would probably have argued with putting the Super Bowl in a family-friendly tier.

ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer was asked to explain his company's position on indecency regulation of cable, which moderator Susan Swain of C-SPAN pointed out diverged from some others in the industry.

Bodenheimer argued that Disney does not feel it is defensible to apply different content standards to broadcasting and cable given that viewers, especially anyone under 20, essentially make no distinctions between cable and broadcast channels as they surf up and down the dial. He said the company was not advocating regulation, but said a common standard was "better than tiering."

Willner and Schleiff agreed.

Lee did not, saying she saw clear distinctions between the two services. Lee said she didn't want the same obligations as broadcasters. "We don't get the same freebies," she said, alluding to the digital spectrum they received while other services are now required to bid for it.

Interjecting a note of pragmatism was Esser, who said operators need to listen to what D.C. is telling them, given that the Congress is currently considering issues, from the Telecom Bill rewrite to retransmission consent to multicast must-carry, that could "bring us to our knees."

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