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The FCC, A New Starr Chamber?

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We haven’t heard much of late from Kevin Martin, the recently installed chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Since taking the helm from the disastrous (and far more vocal) Michael Powell this past march, Martin has continued his predecessor’s program of trying to squeeze television broadcasters to “clean up” their content, but in a much savvier fashion.

The 38-year-old Martin, you may recall, is a former adviser to Kenneth Starr and political operative for George W. Bush in Texas. Mediaweek termed him an “advocate of even tougher stands against broadcast indecency than his predecessor Michael Powell.” But instead of slapping huge fines on broadcasters for showing allegedly “indecent” content, he has been playing behind the scenes, and thus has run into less interference in his plan to censor what a tiny band of Christian conservative activists consider programming unfit for consumption by Americans.

A small blip on the Martin radar screen popped up this past week, when reports surfaced that cable television companies Time Warner, Comcast and four others were drawing up plans to offer subscribers a lineup of “family-friendly” cable packages as an alternative to packages that include allegedly “indecent” shows.

But it isn’t public service that is inspiring the move, or even any demand on the part of cable customers. Rather, it looks to be a pure economic play. Martin is rumored to have been pushing the “family-friendly” option as part of his pending approval of the sale of Adelphia Communications to Time Warner Cable and Comcast. And guess what? It just so happens that those two companies are leading the fight for the family-choice system, just in time for the FCC to make its decision. As Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, told Salon’s Michael Scherer on Tuesday, “There is an element of regulatory extortion at work here.… Everybody in town knows that.”

But even with the possibility of cable packages that discriminate against channels that offer adult audiences wicked fare, such as Comedy Central and HBO, groups like the extremist Parents Television Council still aren’t satisfied. The PTC wants the government to step in and further regulate the industry, forcing an “a la carte” system on the industry. In a statement released Tuesday, the PTC said that “The only model Congress should consider and the cable industry should provide is an ‘a la carte’ cable choice model, giving consumers the ability to choose and pay for the programs they want, and opt-out of what they don’t. Anything less is unacceptable.”

Truth be told, this a la carte model is exactly the one Martin has been pushing for, and one he refuses to rule out, even with cable’s newest concession. He is also refusing to give up on his other pet project – extending broadcast television indecency rules to cover basic cable.

What is the problem with offering consumers the choice of buying a “family-friendly” cable package, or choosing only the channels they want, while excluding the rest? In the first place, not everyone will be able to get it. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the tens of millions of traditional analog cable TV subscribers would have to upgrade to a digital cable box in order to take advantage of any family-tier offering,” with the upgrade to digital adding $7 to $8 to a subscriber's monthly cable bill. What’s more, while behemoths like Time Warner and Comcast “have the leverage to force programmers to package programs in a family-friendly tier, [most] smaller cable operators don't have that clout and are unlikely to follow the industry leaders, said Matthew M. Polka, president of the American Cable Assn. in Pittsburgh.” It could also cost cable providers revenue – a situation which would drive cable bills even higher. Laura Behrens, a research analyst for Gartner Industry Advisory Services, told the Times that if just 5 percent of subscribers switched to a family tier, “it could cost programmers tens of millions of dollars annually in lost revenue…because programmers are paid according to how many cable subscribers take their shows.”

And therein lies the greatest possibility for harm. If small, experimental stations and programs are not picked up by enough consumers, media diversity in general suffers. Smaller stations, like Current TV or FX, which try to do something different, would suffer cuts. Then there’s the danger of a trickle down effect. It’s a likely scenario that the family plan could very well lead to some cable channels censoring some of their shows, in order to make them more palatable to the family bundles – and thus reducing the already slim pickings offered for those of us mature enough to handle television that is aimed at an audience older than 14. What’s more, just what does “family-friendly” mean and who gets to decide? If it’s going to be the former Kenneth Starr staffer and Bush supporter from Texas, I’d say be afraid; be very afraid…

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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