Respond to this Article December 2005

Viewer Discretion

Parents should be able to pay for Nickelodeon without having to pony up for MTV.

By Zachary Roth

It seems almost quaint that not too long ago, television producer Steven Bochco could ignite a raging controversy about popular entertainment and public morality with a shot of Dennis Franz's bare butt and the occasional "asshole!" in a line of dialogue. Ten years, one Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, and countless "Real World" threesomes later, there is hardly a line still uncrossed on television. Nudity? Profanity? Violence, sex, drug use? It's all there, often on some of the best shows television has seen. From "The Wire" to "Weeds" to "The Sopranos," cable and satellite television provide an oasis of smart adult entertainment. That's not to say, however, that parents want their 9-year-olds stumbling across one of these shows on the way to "That's So Raven."

Fully 86 percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned about what children see on television, according to a Pew Research Center study released earlier this year. And two-thirds say that television entertainment is worse than it was five years ago, with indecency overwhelmingly cited as the reason.

Congress is considering increased fines to address indecency on broadcast television. But for cable channels like MTV, VH1, BET, and others--which are seen by anti-indecency advocates as the worst offenders--that approach won't necessarily work. At the same time, overworked and overextended parents need help. And, at the moment, parents who want to exert some control over what their children see in their own homes have few good options.

Of course, no one's being forced to get cable. But over the last decade or so, the centrality of cable to American life and culture has steadily increased. If you want to watch much of the professional baseball, basketball, or hockey playoffs, for instance, (sometimes even including the finals), you need cable. In-depth financial news, as well as the vast majority of children's programming--including channels such as Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel--are simply not available on broadcast station. That's putting an increasing number of American parents in an unenviable catch-22: Either forego cable and cut themselves off from mainstream American culture or risk exposing their children to material they view as indecent and harmful.

Getting the V-chip to work Given this reality, the respective responses of conservatives and liberals are almost comically unhelpful for parents. Congress has made noises about extending fines for indecency on broadcast television to cover cable programming. But as Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein recently warned, any attempt by Congress to regulate cable content would likely be struck down by the courts on free speech grounds. Even if such efforts did pass legal muster, fines are an overly blunt way to protect children; the viewers most affected would be adults whose entertainment options in the privacy of their own homes would be limited by government. There's a word for that: censorship.

At the same time, liberals and libertarians--fearful that any attempt to control access to content (even for children) will lead to censorship--suggest that parents concerned about indecency simply change the channel or turn off the TV. This displays a willful ignorance of how modern life is actually lived. After completing a full workday, a time-consuming commute home, errands, and preparing dinner, parents are lucky if they have an hour at the end of the day to spend with their children and partners. Teenagers, meanwhile, frequently arrive home from school by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, well before any adults. Indeed, Pew found that 59 percent of parents are present for only half--or less--of the time their children spend watching television. The "change the channel" argument also does nothing to ease the concerns of parents who seek to avoid having their kids exposed to indecent material in the first place. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the landmark 1978 indecency case, FCC v. Pacifica: "To say that one may avoid further offense by turning off the radio when he hears indecent language is like saying that the remedy for an assault is to run away after the first blow."

What about technological solutions? Recent innovations allow customers to block those channels they don't want to receive, either through their cable company or by using their cable set-top box. But this is often a complicated and time-consuming process. Cable companies aren't eager to help customers block channels because they are required to report to programmers the number of clients blocking a certain channel--high numbers of blocked channels do not make the companies popular with programmers. Customers who don't relish the prospect of haggling with their cable company in order to implement the blocking option often give up. Similarly, using the set-top box--as with the V-chip, which was hailed in the 1990s as the answer to parental concerns--is hardly a simple task, nor is it always 100 percent effective. Inevitably, few parents have availed themselves of the technology.

But the real problem is that all of these solutions place a burden on parents. Requiring busy parents to master the intricacies of the set-top box, wait around all day for the cable guy to show (or not show), supervise every instant of their children's television viewing, or renounce cable entirely gets things precisely backwards. Parents should not have to go out of their way to protect their kids.

I want my MTV

There is an easier--and arguably fairer--way to ensure that those parents who want to control their children's television watching at home can do so. And it's a solution that doesn't add to the to-do list of already-frazzled mothers and fathers. Congress can require cable companies to offer customers the chance to select programming on an a la carte basis. Currently, cable companies force customers to select one of a handful of packages of channels, and to pay a fixed rate for that package. Families that want the Disney Channel but not MTV are out of luck. Under an a la carte system, customers signing up for cable service would be offered--in addition to the standard package options--a list of individual channels, each sold separately. Subscriptions to most channels would likely cost around two dollars each. Customers could then select, and pay for, only the channels they wanted. Parents who object to certain channels could choose only those they considered family-friendly. Those without kids, or who aren't worried about television content, could continue happily watching MTV, Showtime, and Spike TV.

This approach elegantly solves the problem of protecting children without using the government to regulate content, or imposing an undue burden on parents. And it works by empowering individuals, thereby bringing cable into line with the range of other modern-day activities and services that emphasize choice, putting consumers--not corporations--in the driver's seat. We have come to expect a level of control and personal customization unimaginable 20 years ago. As media consumers, we no longer have to rely on a handful of national newspapers or major television networks, but can now choose from a vast array of blogs and news sites, each tailored to a particular political or cultural outlook. As patients, we can research our own symptoms online instead of relying on doctors for all of our basic medical information. Even as sports fans, we can create and customize our own teams through fantasy leagues. But in the world of cable television, the logic of the take-it-or-leave-it package deal still reigns. An a la carte system would end that anachronism, shifting control from cable companies to individuals.

In doing so, it would give parents real control for the first time over what their kids watch on television. "What we want more than anything," says Lanier Swann of Concerned Women for America, "is for parents…to have the opportunity to choose for themselves what they deem appropriate in their own home."

Free cable for Christ

The major cable providers won't give up control without a fight. They launched an extensive lobbying and public relations campaign--in a delicious bit of ironic casting, they hired former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed--aimed at warding off government action and parrying the efforts of conservative Christian activists who support a la carte. To date, most of their efforts have been aimed at making the argument that an a la carte system would raise cable rates--they point to a report issued by the FCC last year that came to a similar conclusion. But while there is significant evidence to suggest that "bundling"--selling separate but related products as a package--can confer economic benefits, it is unlikely that most consumers would ultimately pay more under a la carte since they would be buying far fewer channels.

Cable companies also claim, with some merit, that their hands are tied by the programmers, who seek to use their most popular channels to support their least popular. All four of the major programmers--Disney (ABC), Viacom (CBS), General Electric (NBC), and the News Corp. (FOX)--who are responsible for the vast majority of television programming, insist in contract negotiations that cable companies accept the entire range of channels being offered, not just the few that customers actually want. Rupert Murdoch used that strategy to make the FOX News Channel a near-overnight success, requiring cable companies that wanted to offer consumers his other FOX channels to make FNC part of their standard package when it launched in 1996. But any legislation mandating a la carte would also prevent programmers from employing these coercive negotiation tactics. Cable companies would make a concession to their customers on one end, but on the other they would be getting out from under the thumb of powerful programmers.

What this fight is really all about, however, isn't the threat of short-term economic loss or the relationship between cable providers and programmers. Instead, cable companies see a la carte as the first battle in the coming conceptual struggle over cable television. Over the last 20 years, cable companies--along with the major programmers--have grown used to enjoying something close to total control over how Americans watch TV and what they watch on it. Now, they face competition on all sides, from phone companies moving into the cable market and from satellite service. As devices that increase consumer control (like Tivo, digital video recorders, and Internet-based television) become cheaper and more popular, the underlying profit model of the industry--based on the increasingly dubious proposition that viewers will sit through discrete 30-second advertising spots--will likely undergo radical change. Cable companies are desperate to ensure that the basic lens through which customers view their cable service--as a package deal that they take or leave--remains intact. And that means fighting proposals such as a la carte to the hilt.

As in a growing number of debates, this could come down to a struggle between the socially conservative and business wings of the Republican Party. Over the past few years, an odd bed-fellows coalition of conservative Christian organizations and consumer advocates has lobbied to demand changes in the cable industry. They had something to cheer about earlier this year when Michael Powell, who was known to be hostile to a la carte, stepped down as FCC chair. His replacement, Kevin Martin, is a strong ally of the anti-indecency movement--Martin recently hired Peggy Nance, an anti-pornography activist and former board member of Concerned Women for America, as a special adviser on indecency issues. And last month, Martin told a conference of investors in Charlotte, N.C., that to address parental concerns, cable companies should allow customers to choose the channels they receive: "It's important for parents and families to have more tools to have more control over content." Ultimately, the old abortion-rights slogan "Who decides?" may be what rallies social conservatives and consumers to pressure Congress for change. Because "parents" is still a better answer than "corporations."

Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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