Congressional GOPers Favor Cable Decency Rules

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Indecency guidelines that over-the-air broadcasters must follow should be extended to cover cable and satellite broadcasters, congressional Republicans who are influential on telecommunications issues said Tuesday.

Most viewers don't differentiate between traditional TV and cable so they don't know when they might be exposed to objectionable programming, Sen. Ted Stevens (search), R-Alaska, head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told the National Association of Broadcasters (search) in Washington.

"In this country, there has to be some standards of decency," said Stevens, who said he would push for such legislation.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group, said people choose to pay for channels and, as part of their subscription, are able to block programming they don't want seen in their homes. Because of that, the group said, any legislation would face an uphill battle in court.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, voiced support for the idea of indecency guidelines for cable and satellite and said he would consult with Stevens on possible legislation.

"It's not fair to subject over-the-air broadcasters to one set of rules and subject cable and satellite to no rules," Barton told reporters after a separate appearance before the broadcasters group.

The House last month overwhelmingly passed a bill to raise the maximum indecency fine from $32,500 to $500,000. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate but has not had a hearing.

Federal law bars nonsatellite radio stations and noncable television channels from airing certain references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely be tuning in.

The Federal Communications Commission (search) has no power to regulate cable and satellite stations, which are available to about 85 percent of the roughly 108 million U.S. households with televisions.

In December, the FCC rejected a request from a radio station owner that the FCC begin imposing broadcast indecency regulations to subscription satellite services.

Last year, FCC Chairman Michael Powell (search) told the broadcasters group that he did not "generally support the extension of content rules to cable and satellite unless Congress supports a statement asking us to do so."

The broadcasters association, which represents free, over-the-air radio and TV stations, has been critical of the lack of indecency guidelines (search) for cable and satellite stations.

"If a 5-year-old uses the clicker ... he can't differentiate between the over-the-air signals and a cable signal," said Edward Fritts, the association's president.

The cable group pointed to a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that said Congress violated free-speech rights when it sought to protect children from sexually oriented cable channels like Playboy Television.

The anti-smut law, enacted by Congress in 1996, had required cable systems to restrict sex-oriented networks to overnight hours if they did not fully scramble their signals for nonsubscribers.

Cable companies have instituted a public service campaign in the last two years to educate customers about channel-blocking tools, said Brian Dietz, a vice president for the cable group.