Commentary By Steve Effros Family Friendly Service The imbroglio about the government somehow requiring cable to sell a "family friendly tier" of programming has achieved a rare consensus. Everyone loves to talk about it, but few, if any, are willing to specify what, exactly, should be on such a tier. There’s an obvious reason: what’s "friendly" to one family may not be to another. One member of Congress has written a bill (with big fines for not complying) requiring a "family friendly tier;" the tier may not contain material that is "indecent," "profane" or "excessively violent." We already know what the problems are with defining either indecency or "excessively violent" (lions eating Bambi? Shark attacks? I wouldn’t want 4- year-olds seeing that!). But what about "profane?" Have you looked up the definition? Here’s one: "Nonreligious in subject matter, form, or use; secular." Can you imagine enforcement of that? Government requirements for a "family friendly tier" would result in the same unintended consequences the FCC and GAO already established that "a la carte" requirements would have: a likely reduction in program diversity and an increase in consumer prices. This is a bad idea, especially since it also wouldn’t work! But the desire of some of our customers to limit what television fare comes into their homes is valid and real, and I think there is a way to satisfy it which should be acceptable to all involved in this debate. I call it Family Friendly Service. First, most viewers do not understand they already control what comes into their home. V-chips combined with cable’s commitment to provide free blocking technology to any customer gives full control, with the new digital converters providing lots of easy fine-tuning. But they don’t know that, or have chosen not to use it. For those who don’t know how easy it is the cable industry has embarked on yet another ambitious education campaign. And it’s the right thing to do. But what about also offering to "do it for them?" That’s "Family Friendly Service." Obviously there are variations on this theme. The consumer would sign up for "Family Friendly Service." During installation, a trained technician would specifically program the set-top box, blocking channels the customer did not want, or setting ratings filters per the customer’s orders. The box could then be locked either with or without a "pin" code to unlock it, again depending on the customer’s wishes. Setting the box parameters when a customer "signed up" could provide this same service. The box would be sent, labeled "family friendly," to the customer for self-installation, or substitution for the box the customer currently uses. Either way, the cost of the service would be the same, and the initial availability of programs would be the same as it is now. The difference is that the cable operator would provide the service of setting the already-available viewing restrictions based on an individual customer’s desires. Customized cable. There is a precedent. The President just signed legislation allowing 3rd parties to use technology to pre-screen DVDs, blocking or editing "objectionable" parts before viewers see them. The customer seeking a "family friendly" DVD pays an extra fee for this service. Initially I suggest we not charge extra for "Family Friendly Service." It would cost the same as our regular offerings (which customers could, of course, control themselves). We would simply provide the service of installing the blocking technology. That’s "Family Friendly Service."