TV Industry Unites On Viewer Education

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

HOLLYWOOD -- All three major television distributors -- broadcast stations, cable networks and satellite services -- have united for the first time in a media campaign to educate parents on how to block objectionable programming from their children, as cable and satellite outlets fear that the government crackdown on broadcast indecency will spread to them.

The government's recent tenfold increase in fines for broadcast indecency combined with the public's nearly nonexistent use of blocking technology, such as the V-chip, has motivated the three rivals to join forces in contributing airtime for a series of public service announcements.

Two TV spots -- each with a 15-second and a 30-second version -- are to debut Wednesday on local broadcast stations and the top 100 cable channels, as seen on cable and satellite systems, said Peggy Conlon, chief executive of the Ad Council, which creates public service announcements for use on donated airtime. The ads direct parents to a Web site, , which instructs viewers on the use of blocking technology.

The man behind the campaign is longtime motion picture industry lobbyist Jack Valenti, who met with Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) in November when the two leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee convened a working group of industry, government and advocacy representatives on the topic of indecency.

The senators asked the entertainment industry for a plan to counter the rising coarseness of television broadcasts. The alternative was a further crackdown on indecency and the possibility of legislation requiring cable and satellite operators -- such as Comcast Corp. and the DirecTV Group -- to change the way they sell channels.

The cable industry has been airing consumer-education campaigns since 2004, but Stevens and Inouye made it clear that those didn't allay all their fears, said Rob Stoddard, senior vice president for communications and public affairs for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the major trade group of the cable industry.

"They were very clearly looking for us to do something," Stoddard said. "This issue [indecency] is simply not going to dry up and go away."

Valenti -- who for years was known as the only man who could unite the fiefdoms of the major Hollywood studios to get them to agree on, for instance, the movie ratings system -- envisioned a multi-platform campaign to instruct parents in the blocking technology already available in television sets and on cable and satellite remote controls.

A 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 15 percent of parents who own televisions with V-chips use the technology, which allows users to block programming carrying certain ratings.

Valenti called the broadcasters, cable and satellite distributors "implacable enemies in the marketplace," adding, "I've tangled with all of them at one time or another." Valenti, who retired in 2004 as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said he is doing the work on the campaign pro bono.

The broadcasters have little incentive to remain in the campaign. In June, before the public service announcements were ready, Congress passed a law upping the maximum indecency fine for broadcasters to $325,000 from $32,500.

But the cable and satellite providers -- which are outside the Federal Communications Commission's authority to police indecency -- still fear government intrusion into their content.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin favors "family tier" and "a la carte" plans, in which cable providers would bundle family-friendly channels to the exclusion of others or would offer channels individually. So, for instance, a consumer could buy the ABC Family channel and not have to take MTV as well.

The cable and satellite systems balk at such ideas, saying they would result in diminished choice for consumers because popular cable channels -- such as TNT -- effectively subsidize lesser-watched channels, such as Court TV, which could not garner enough viewers on their own to survive, the operators say. There have been a number of conflicting studies over the past two years on the a la carte proposition. The most recent was a February FCC study showing that a la carte pricing could reduce consumers' cable bills by as much as 13 percent.

In June, the Commerce Committee voted down an amendment to a telecommunications bill that would have required cable systems to provide a la carte service. But Stevens said he thought cable companies would eventually have to provide such service. And Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said it was the last time he expected to vote against a la carte.

The public service announcements, created by ad giant McCann-Erickson, feature a parent talking to television characters visiting the parent's home. "I like your show," the parent says -- in one spot, to mobsters -- "but it's too graphic for my children, so I'll have to block it."

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