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CU Supports Amendments to Indecency Bill

Consumers Union Letter to the Senate Commerce Committee Supporting Amendments to S. 2056, Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act

March 8, 2004
Dear Senator,
As the Senate Commerce Committee looks for solutions to stem the increase of violence, indecency and obscenity on television through S. 2056, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, we ask that you consider a range of amendments that would give communities and consumers the most effective means of controlling the programming that comes into their homes.
We ask you to support amendments that would: 1) give consumers the ability to select and pay for only those cable channels they want in their homes via an “a la carte” option; 2) prevent the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from implementing relaxed media ownership rules that would give national programmers undue influence over local programming decisions and impede an open public debate about what is appropriate media content; and 3) prevent excessive violence in primetime TV programming.
Increasing fines for violations of FCC indecency rules beyond the current amount is an important, but not sufficient, fix to the problem of inappropriate broadcast programming. While larger fines may periodically deter programming excesses, it is hard to see how they will be truly effective when the media giants are capable of hiring an army of lawyers to fend off whatever enforcement actions the FCC can afford to pursue. As such, families likely will continue to be inundated with programming they find offensive or inappropriate.
In addition, the recently announced cable industry indecency effort will not be enough to provide real solutions to consumers. The Cable Puts You in Control program is a purely voluntary approach that provides no new avenues or tools for programming control, but rather relies on consumers to seek out industry-controlled Web sites and pamphlets to learn about existing measures.
We believe that it is critical to take action now to end the cable and satellite industry practice of forcing families to pay for cable programming that they find objectionable or offensive. Allowing consumers to pick and pay for channels they choose through an “a la carte” option will ensure that the market is more responsive to families’ concerns about indecency and violence. Currently, if a family chooses to block a particular channel, the family still must pay a subscription fee that is passed along to the programmer — a situation which is insulting and unfair, since the family is being forced to subsidize the producers of the inappropriate content.
The cable industry will likely argue that the equipment necessary to offer “a la carte” would increase prices for consumers. However, it is hard to imagine that an industry that can offer “plug and play” equipment to prevent piracy, and digital boxes to deliver pay-per-view and other packages of services, cannot at the same time offer consumers the right to pick the channels they want with this equipment. It is also important to remember consumers on average watch only between 12 and 18 cable channels, and the right to select the channels they want may save many of them money on their skyrocketing cable bills.
We also believe that any effort to give families and local communities a say in what is broadcast on their public airwaves, and what programming comes into their homes, must address the growing threat of media consolidation. Realistic media ownership rules must be in place to lessen the influence of massive corporations on local broadcast content, as well as to ensure public debate in the local media, including newspapers. Overturning the lax FCC rules, and developing sensible media ownership rules that allow for diverse programming that reflects local community interests and values is a critical first step in restoring balance between American consumers and corporate media giants. At the very least, these rules should not be implemented until the impact of media consolidation on indecent programming can be thoroughly studied.
Finally, we support efforts to empower parents to have more control over the violent broadcast programming that their children may watch. An amendment to study the value of the V-chip at preventing this programming and setting aside violence-free family viewing time is essential to ensure that families are not forced to put up with gratuitous violence during the few evening hours they can gather together and enjoy television.
We urge you and other members of the Committee to adopt these pro-consumer amendments to help address inappropriate programming aired over both broadcast and cable/satellite networks.
Respectfully submitted,
Gene Kimmelman
Senior Director of Public Policy and Advocacy