Wild day at the FCC yesterday, with the commission’s open meeting scheduled for 10:30am ET delayed well into the evening. But the commission finally met after some 11th hour haggling—particularly concerning the wireless spectrum auction—and duly set the stage for a huge battle with the cable industry.
Making the most waves today: a report on violent television programming and kids, which the Commission released and adopted last night. [Click here for a PDF copy—all materials from the meeting are posted at FCC.gov].
Concluding that "cable operator-provided advanced parental controls do not appear to be available on a sufficient number of cable-connected television sets to be considered an effective solution at this time," (cue howls from the NCTA), the FCC report urges Congress to define what constitutes violence on television and is arguing for a family-friendly hour of programming on TV networks—similar to the Canadian and UK notion of a watershed—with no violent programming from 6am-10pm.
Adding fuel to the fire, the report champions à la carte choice of channels (per-channel or family tier offerings) for multichannel video customers of cable, satellite and telco TV to protect their kids from nasty content while also encouraging the industry to adopt more self-policing.
"These FCC recommendations are political pandering," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times. "The government should not replace parents as decision makers in America’s living rooms."
NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz also told the NYT that consumers "are the best judge of which content is appropriate for their household. Simple-sounding solutions, such as à la carte regulation of cable TV packages, are misguided and would endanger cable’s high-quality family-friendly programming, leaving parents and children with fewer viewing options."
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton commented in the Times article that broadcast television was "far more tame than programming found on pay TV in terms of both sex and violence." He added "that the association, along with all the networks and major cable groups, is in the middle of a $300 million marketing effort to help educate parents about the V-chip and other technology to block programs [and asked], ‘Should this not be given a chance to work?’"
Consumer advocacy group TV Watch slammed the FCC’s TV violence proposal in a press release this morning: "In a recent poll, 74% of Americans said they want parents—not the government—to decide what their kids should or should not be watching on television rather than the government. America has spoken. Now government needs to listen."
The group praised the TV ratings and V-chip efforts and noted that 85% of all households "have cable or satellite technology that includes additional blocking technology." It also suggested the FCC has fallen under the sway of Brent Bozell and his PTC‘s lobbying as a "small but vocal minority" that does not represent the vast majority of American consumers but generates the majority of complaints.
"Giving the Federal Communications Commission the power to regulate ‘violent’’and ‘graphic’ television content will stifle free expression, threaten quality programming, and ultimately harm America’s children, just as its regulation of ‘indecency’ has done," commented Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.
Another brewing battle: must-carry, with the FCC last night reiterating its goal that all cable subscribers, including those with analog TV sets, be able to view must-carry television stations after the digital TV transition occurs on Feb. 17, 2009.
Quote: "the FCC proposes that cable operators must either: (1) carry the signals of all must-carry stations in an analog format to all analog cable subscribers, or (2) for all-digital systems, carry those signals only in digital format, provided that all subscribers have the necessary equipment to view the broadcast content. The FCC reaffirmed that cable systems must carry high definition (“HD”) broadcast signals in HD format. The FCC also asked for comment on whether the Commission should move from a subjective to an objective measure of what constitutes material degradation. One way to do this would be to require that all "content bits" transmitted by the broadcaster be carried by the cable operator."
NCTA president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow responded in a statement: "[F]ederally mandated dual carriage as proposed in today’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is a completely unnecessary government intrusion into the marketplace. Worse, it is unconstitutional, as the FCC itself decided twice unanimously in 2001 and 2005. As three of the Commissioners acknowledged in voting for the item today, relabeling dual must carry as a solution for the digital TV transition doesn’t circumvent the constitutional hurdle. However, our industry will continue to work with policymakers at the FCC and in Congress to explore constructive ideas that actually help the consumer without unnecessarily violating the First Amendment."
The FCC also also voted unanimously to approve a plan regarding its upcoming auction of the 700 MHz wireless spectrum. The commission will sell slices of spectrum in a mix of geographic sizes, including multistate parcels sought by carriers such as AT&T and Verizon. As Bloomberg today notes, the sale could generate as much as $15 billion. The auction should start by early January at the latest because the commission wants to give bidders at least six months to prepare.
The FCC last night also adopted rules requiring retailers to display a consumer alert to warn customers about the upcoming DTV transition. The commission is requiring that retailers display signs if they are selling TV equipment with only an analog broadcast tuner. The FCC’s signage text:
This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after February 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation’s transition to digital broadcasting. Analog-only TVs should continue to work as before with cable and satellite TV services, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players, and similar products. For more information, call the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322) or visit the Commission’s digital television website at: www.dtv.gov.