Family-Friendly Tiering as Censorship

by on December 16, 2005 · 4 comments

In a previous column about “A La Carte as Censorship,” I noted how some regulatory activists were using a la carte regulation as a Trojan Horse to impose content controls on cable TV. In the last couple of days, “family-friendly” tiers have been “voluntarily” offered by the cable industry as a way to head off a la carte mandates and cable censorship in general. But it’s already clear that this won’t change things much since activist groups and lawmakers are jawboning for specific channels and content to be included or excluded from these tiers.

For example, within hours of the cable industry’s announcement of its “voluntary” concession to offer family-friendly tiers, lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Stevens and Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps were already asking for details about what sort of content would be included in those tiers. “We’ve got to define what a family tier is. We’ve got to figure [out] how much it’s going to cost,” argued Copps. And at the Senate hearing during which the cable industry announced its plan to offer these new tiers, Sen. Stevens told cable representatives that they should not delay implementation of the family tier and should be very careful about the prices they charge for the new tier. “I think time is a consideration, and costs will be a consideration,” he said. Apparently, therefore, cable rate regulation appears to be a possibility again.

Similarly, the day after the cable industry’s announced its plan to offer family-friendly tiers, Dan Isett, director of government affairs for the Parents Television Council, was already telling the press which channels should not be included those tiers. Isett said that ABC Family should not be included in any family-friendly tier simply because it occasionally shows PG-13 rated movies a night. Isett also said the Cartoon Network was not appropriate for their new tiers because some late-night cartoons were geared toward adults. A few days later, after Time Warner announced the channel lineup for its family-friendly tier, PTC President Brent Bozell labeled it “a very bad joke” because it did not include channels he though should have been included, such as: ESPN, Turner Classic Movies, and Fox News Channel. It is unclear why PTC thinks those sports, movie and news channels are better suited for children than ABC Family and Cartoon Network but, regardless, ongoing pressure of this sort can be expected.

Enough complaints from such activist groups and even average viewers about what is included in “family-friendly” will likely produce increased calls for government assistance in defining this term of art. Hence, a censorship regime is born. A regime based not necessarily on direct regulation of certain channels, programs or content, (although that might be the end result), but instead an indirect censorship regime based on “regulation by raised eyebrow,” in which policymakers provide informal feedback to cable or satellite operators regarding what they’d like to see included in any “family-friendly” tier.

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