LOS ANGELES, April 27 (UPI) -- Cable TV operators are launching a costly campaign to educate consumers on how to block potentially offensive material, but is the industry a day late and a dollar short in its effort to avoid federal legislation extending broadcast indecency regulation to cable and satellite programming?
Beginning Sunday the cable industry will turn over an estimated $250 million worth of airtime -- or shelf space, as some broadcasters are inclined to think of it -- to a campaign called "Take Control. It's Easy." The campaign, expected to run on about 100 cable channels, will provide tutorials for viewers on how to block content from children -- and will also increase the frequency of on-screen program ratings.
According to a report in USA Today, the cable industry's efforts to show viewers how to block content have been largely confined to early morning hours, and the rating icons have appeared -- as a rule -- only at the beginning of programs. The new campaign also features a Web site -- ControlYourTV.org -- that offers information on using existing technologies to control what comes into viewers' homes.
"The cable industry has a longstanding commitment to addressing parents' concerns about what they and their children see on television," the Web site advises visitors. "Cable operators and program networks are strongly committed to addressing these concerns."
Whatever that commitment has historically amounted to, it apparently was not enough for politicians on Capitol Hill, who have recently pushed legislation to bring cable and satellite under the same federal regulatory umbrella that covers broadcasters. Largely in response to pressure from constituents who think an "anything goes" attitude in American entertainment has gone too far, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, are sponsoring a bill to extend indecency regulation to cover cable and satellite services.
USA Today quoted Rockefeller as saying the new program offered by the cable industry was a "serious step" to address indecency on TV.
The messages will show parents how they can use their set-top boxes to block channels -- or even specific programs -- and how to get free installation of a channel filter if they do not have digital set-top boxes. Viewers will also get reminders on how to use the V-chip, a device that has been standard equipment on new TV sets manufactured in the United States since 2000 that can automatically block programs based on their ratings.
One thing that no public-awareness campaign can control is the extent to which viewers take the initiative to use the technologies at their disposal. Broadcast and cable-industry executives frequently point out that many consumers still don't even know what a V-chip is -- let alone how it works.
Social critics who slam broadcasters over issues of content acknowledge that parents have a responsibility for what their children watch, but they also insist that parents need help from the broadcasters. The Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council, a media watchdog group that specializes in identifying and criticizing sex, violence and vulgar language in entertainment, charged in a study last week that the V-chip and the TV ratings system are failures.
"Our findings show the blatant hypocrisy of TV executives who claim that parents should rely on TV ratings and the V-chip to protect their children," said PTC President L. Brent Bozell. "Most television programs showing foul language, violence, and inappropriate sexual dialogue or situations do not use the appropriate content descriptors that would warn parents about the presence of offensive content."
The PTC was identified earlier this year as the source of the overwhelming majority of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about several recent high-profile episodes involving broadcast decency violations.
Quite apart from cable and satellite signals entering the home, the drive to protect kids from objectionable content has resulted in a new federal law -- the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act -- to legalize software filtering technology that can skip over or mute data on DVDs that parents don't want their kids to see or hear.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on a House subcommittee on intellectual property, opposed the bill. He told National Public Radio it improperly allows software makers to profit from the labor of filmmakers.
"There are obviously many books that we wouldn't want our kids to see," Berman said, "but that doesn't give some other company a right to produce an abridged version of the book to create a whole stream of revenue for a work that they didn't create."
But the new law also gives Hollywood something it has wanted very badly: tougher punishment and fines for people who use camcorders to record movies in theaters so they can sell them on the black market. Officials with the Motion Picture Association of America acknowledged that compromise on the issue of software filtering was a trade-off for getting what Hollywood wanted on piracy.
"Video theft hurts tax-payers, it hurts consumers, it hurts the creative process," said MPAA head Dan Glickman, "and it hurts the hundreds of thousands of people who work hard each day to make the magic of the movies."
The entertainment industry accepted a bitter pill with the software filtering provisions of the new law, largely owing to the current political climate. It remains to be seen whether cable's new educational program will help the industry escape the reach of tougher federal regulation.
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