Los Angeles Times: Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska is wrong for demanding that cable and satellite television programming be subjected to the same inconsistent indecency rules that now saddle broadcast TV. But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., makes Stevens look like a hippie. At a national cable television industry meeting last week, he argued for criminal prosecutions instead of fines for those who offend viewer sensibilities.
It doesn't help that the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin J. Martin, ingratiated his way into the job by playing to social conservatives. His job is not that of censor in chief.
Martin tried to sound a conciliatory note at a cable industry confab in San Francisco on Tuesday, mainly by stating the obvious point that he has no jurisdiction to crack down on cable smut. But given his track record, there was something ominous about his exhortations that cable executives clean up their act. There was an implicit "or else."
There's work to be done
Instead of addressing cable executives, Martin should be busy clarifying what constitutes indecency for broadcasters and end the confusion that is causing them to unnecessarily censor themselves to the detriment of viewers -- as happened last year when some ABC affiliates refused to air the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan" for fear that its profanity would trigger FCC fines.
Broadcasters complain that they are not competing on a level playing field because cable networks don't face the same regulatory scheme, which is justified by the fact that the airwaves are a scarce public resource. Some disparity is unavoidable, and the worst thing that could happen -- at least until courts ruled the move unconstitutional -- would be for Washington to try to impose the same restraints on cable that broadcasters face.
A better way to address the disparity now is by loosening the controls on broadcasters and making the rules clearer.
As for the cable industry, it could ease some of the political pressure on itself if it devised a programming ratings system that was consistent, coherent and believable.
The industry also must do a better job of promoting and explaining the existing technology that parents can use to keep their homes free from programming they find offensive. Most households get television programming (including broadcast fare) through cable or satellite services that already allow parents to keep their children from watching potentially offensive channels.
Finally, cable operators would be wise to allow consumers to purchase programming on an a la carte basis. If you don't want it, don't buy it.