Cable chieftains' effort to placate critics in Congress only fans flames

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The cable TV industry's attempt to quell a rising tide of criticism from Capitol Hill's obscenity police has backfired.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association unveiled a major initiative April 27 to publicize existing parental choices. It pledged to display ratings information more prominently and more frequently, and to spend $250 million on public service ads explaining to parents how they can block programming with certain ratings.

In doing so the cable chiefs clearly hoped to head off those congressional critics who have been calling for the extension of broadcast obscenity curbs to cable and satellite. But rather than alleviate the situation, the initiative seems to have fueled the fight for tighter regulation of cable advertising and programming.

While congressmen offered nominal praise for the industry acting, key critics on both sides of the political aisle, and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called the action insufficient and said the cable industry would at least have to develop a family friendly programming tier.

"I don't think it goes far enough," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, one of those who has been pushing for a family tier.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kenneth Martin said he supports "providing parents with additional information, but I think the cable industry needs to do more to address parents' legitimate concerns." He too, backed the idea that cable operators ought to offer a family friendly package.

Going even further Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., last week tabled legislation requiring a kid-friendly programming tier containing "a group of channels that does not carry programming advertisements or public service announcements that would be considered inappropriate for children due to obscene, indecent, profane, sexual or gratuitous and excessively violent content."

Such proposals go way beyond the scope of the NCTA's current effort, and could, the TV companies argue, do untold damage to the entire cable TV business model.

BIGGER AND OFTEN

Under the NCTA's initiative, starting June 1, ratings information for cable shows will be displayed both in a larger size and more often-showing up not only at the show's beginning but after every commercial break on rated shows (sports and news programming isn't rated).

It also said it will spend the $250 million on a series of ads with the tagline "Take Control. It's Easy," which will show parents how to block programming with certain ratings. In addition the NCTA said it will work with the National PTA to schedule more than 100 meetings around the country to explain program blocking.

Unmentioned at the launch of the initiative was that NBC Universal has signed on to participate. NBC has been a holdout to rating content for language and violence in both its broadcast and cable networks, but those descriptions will now be used for both broadcast and cable content.

"We didn't make this announcement predicated on any response from Capitol Hill," said NCTA president-CEO Kyle McSlarrow. "We made this announcement because we thought it was the right thing to do."

The industry, however, clearly does not think that letting viewers pick and choose which cable channels they would buy, or offering a family friendly tier, comes under the same heading.

Comcast Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts said the cable industry's model was "not sustainable" if consumers were allowed to pick and choose individual channels. "Consumer choice and consumer content can only flourish with a cable model that allows various levels of service."

Strategy

The NCTA is vowing to spend $250 million on PSAs explaining how parents can control what programs their children see

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