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Bill Would Require 'Kid-Friendly' Cable

Industry Opposes Tiered Channel System

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; Page E05

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden plans to introduce legislation today that would require cable television companies to create a "kid-friendly" tier of channels that parents could buy to protect children from offensive programming.

The move comes as the cable industry rolled out an expanded viewer-education advertising campaign yesterday to thwart just such legislation.

Sen. Ron Wyden wants cable companies to offer a set of "kid-friendly" cable channels. The industry opposes the bill he plans to introduce today. (Dennis Cook -- AP)

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"I have come to feel very strongly that the challenge is to give parents more choices," Wyden (D) said in an interview.

The cable industry resists tiering plans, such as Wyden's, that would allow consumers to pick out only the channels they want to buy. The industry says such plans would lead to the failure of lesser-watched channels, which are subsidized by more popular channels, and result in higher monthly cable bills. The industry points to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission study on the "a la carte" cable idea that found such a system would be cheaper for consumers who picked nine or fewer channels but more expensive for the majority of viewers who wanted more.

At the National Press Club yesterday, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the trade group of the cable industry, said it would air a series of public service announcements over the next year instructing parents how to use the channel-blocking technology built in to set-top cable boxes, as well as V-chip filters present in televisions sold after 2000.

Also, the group said cable channels would create a larger ratings icon -- designed to tell viewers about the content of a program -- that would appear at the beginning of every program and again after each commercial break. Finally, the NCTA said local cable operators would hold community meetings designed to educate viewers about parental controls.

"If consumers don't know about [parental controls], we should address that point," NCTA President Kyle E. McSlarrow said in an interview yesterday. "If they think it's too complicated to use, we should address that point, too."

Lawmakers have responded to rising complaints about television indecency by proposing significantly larger fines on over-the-air broadcasters, upping the maximum fine from $32,500 to as much as $500,000, and by considering regulation that would extend the government's authority to police content to cable and satellite channels.

Cable programmers and operators have resisted such regulation.

"Before we put policymakers in the position of making a choice between protecting the First Amendment and protecting children, we need to invest significant resources to avoid putting people in that position," McSlarrow said.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who once toyed with the idea of extending the broadcast indecency regulations to cable and satellite channels, called the NCTA's efforts "a step in the right direction" even though he says they do not go far enough.

"It shows they're thinking about the issues we've raised," Stevens said in a statement.

The FCC's new chairman, Kevin J. Martin, said in a statement that he supported the cable industry's initiative but added, "I continue to believe the cable industry should offer a family tier or offer programming in a more a la carte manner."

Wyden said he hoped his bill would spur further action. "What I think has produced some motion on this issue is the prospect of legislation with teeth in it," Wyden said.

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