By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
The main cable industry trade group yesterday told lawmakers that six cable operators intend to offer packages of family-friendly programming, but none of the companies offered details, and one, Comcast Corp., said only that it was studying the idea.
The announcement by National Cable and Telecommunications Association President Kyle E. McSlarrow was designed to blunt criticism of proliferating sex, violence and coarse language on television and to ward off calls for federal regulation.
The cable operators' plan is at odds with programmers, which fear it may reduce the audience for shows left off the family packages and therefore eat into their revenue.
But it may diminish pressure on the industry to sell channels individually, or "a la carte," rather than in groups as is now the practice.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin two weeks ago faulted the industry for not doing enough to help parents protect children from inappropriate content on television and suggested that a "tier" of family channels or a la carte offerings might be a solution.
The FCC has considerable leverage over two of the companies that McSlarrow cited -- Comcast and Time Warner Inc.'s Time Warner Cable -- because the agency is weighing whether to approve their plans to buy the cable system of Adelphia Communications Corp.
In addition to those two, which are the largest U.S. operators, McSlarrow said Advance/Newhouse Communications Inc., Insight Communications Co., Bresnan Communications LLC and Midcontinent Communications Inc. also "intend to offer what they call a family choice tier in the near future."
"They intend to offer such a tier subject to existing commitments and program agreements and they are currently reviewing those agreements to determine how such an offering could be made," he said during a public meeting with members of the Senate Commerce Committee.
McSlarrow said he expected the companies to provide the tiers in the first three months of next year and suggested they would be offered for only digital programming, which is typically more expensive and requires a digital set-top box.
All the companies except Comcast said they intended to provide a family tier but offered no details on what it might contain or cost or when it would become available.
"We are evaluating a family tier," said Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick, declining to comment on whether the Philadelphia company intended to offer one.
The idea of family tiers met with approval from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ranking member Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) but was dismissed by the Parents Television Council, a group that opposes indecency on television and that said consumers should be free to buy only the channels they want.