These are the media news headlines as read on the mediageek radioshow on Jan. 20, 2006: Indecency Day at the Senate Commerce Committee; Consumer Groups Prefer A La Carte; Google Says It Won’t Pay Telcos for Consumer Bandwidth; Stern Gets Pirated.
Indecency Day at the Senate Commerce Committee
Decency, and indecency was the big topic at the Senate Commerce Committee on the morning of January 19. The hearing was the kick-off to an ambitious schedule of 16 telecommunications-related hearings the Committee will hold from now until March.
At the Decency hearing, several representatives of the broadcast, cable and satellite TV industry were joined by indecency-crusader Brent Bozell of the FCC complaint-leading Parents Television Council and a representative from the American Psychological Association to give testimony on the issue.
Chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, lead off the hearing on a somewhat moderate note, lauding some satellite and cable providers announcement that they are about to offer so-called family tiers for households who don’t want more adult content like Comedy Central mixed in with the Disney Channel.
Stevens also seemed cautious with regard to drafting new indecency legislation, recognizing that the road won’t be easy.
Stevens is likely making reference to the fact that many legal experts, including the Congressional Research Service, believe the imposition of indecency regulations on cable and satellite TV would not pass constitutional scrutiny.
One satellite provider that has promised a new family-tier is Dish Network. CEO Charles Ergen announced the new tier during his testimony. He also took the opportunity to swipe at the four largest broadcast networks for their hardball tactics in negotiating for the carriage of their channels. Ergen said the difficulties of striking deals with the networks were part of the roadblock for establishing family-tiers. Here’s Dish Network CEO Charles Ergen.
Dish Network is currently embroiled in a dispute with Hearst-Argyle over the carriage of the Lifetime cable channel. Hearst-Argyle’s controlling company is also a large owner of TV stations. You can read more about that situation at the mediageek blog at mediageek.net
The Parents Television Council leads all other groups combined in the number of indecency complaints it has filed or helped file with the FCC in the last two years. At the Senate Hearing on Decency, the PTC’s Brent Bozell ticked off a laundry list of cable program episodes he found offensive, including episodes of FX’s Nip/Tuck and the Shield, and Comedy Central’s South Park.
Departing from Bozell’s focus on steamier content, Jeff McIntyre
Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer for the American Psychological Association, focused his testimony exclusively on violent programming, and the studies which the APA says link children’s viewing violent content with being more prone to violence.
Overall, like most such hearings, the Commerce Committee’s exploration of decency was more bluster than content. Chairman Stevens, provided the clearest indication of where the Senate is likely to go, which is a pragmatic direction — preferring giving so-called family-friendly channel tiers a try over imposing indecency regulations on cable or satellite.
Consumer Groups Prefer A La Carte
But not everyone thinks family tiers are such a great idea. On the day before the Senate Decency Hearing, a coalition of watchdog groups, including Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and Free press, held a press conference to say that family-tiers don’t offer viewers enough power and choice over their programming.
Instead the groups advocate a la carte channel selection for cable and satellite services, where households can choose the individual channels they want, rather than being saddled with packages containing channels they don’t want.
A la carte isn’t generally too popular with the cable and satellite providers, nor with the cable networks, and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens didn’t seem to hot on pushing a la carte either.
However, at least one satellite provider is more receptive to the idea. In an interview held after the Senate Decency Hearing, Dish Network CEO Charles Ergen told the National Journal that, “The Internet is a la carte,” implying that competition from internet video providers would push cable and satellite to move in that direction. He tied the issue back to struggles with the big television networks which are making it difficult to establish family tiers or a la carte.
FCC Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps made an appearance at the consumer groups’ press conference and brought the issue of network neutrality to the fore, warning that the ability to freely receive content over the internet is being challenged by the nation’s largest telephone companies. Copps told reporters, “”Our open and vibrant and freewheeling Internet is to me the last place on earth where we should tolerate gatekeeper controls.”
Network neutrality will be the subject of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on February 7. A draft bill in circulation on capitol hill would enshrine network neutrality in law, but would also provide an exemption so that broadband providers can establish a so-called premium-tier, privileging their own content, and allowing them to charge other internet companies to use that bandwidth.
Google Says It Won’t Pay Telcos for Consumer Bandwidth
If you’ve been listening to mediageek the last few weeks, you’ve heard about how the big broadband providers, like Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth, are trying to get internet content providers, like Google and Yahoo, to pay them for the bandwidth used when broadband customers view videos or other multimedia content online.
Many industry observers accuse the telcos of trying to double-dip, since the bandwidth a DSL or cablemodem customer receives is already paid for by the customer.
Now, Google is saying it won’t play that game. Spokesman Barry Schnitt emailed the industry website networkpipeline.com to say, “Google is not discussing sharing of the costs of broadband networks with any carrier. We believe consumers are already paying to support broadband access to the Internet through subscription fees and, as a result, consumers should have the freedom to use this connection without limitations.”
Looks like Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth will just have outspend Google in Washington.
Stern Gets Pirated
Finally, As I reported on last week’s mediageek, on Jan. 13 New Jersey became the second state to make unlicensed radio broadcasting a felony crime. In an unrelated event, that was the first week of Howard Stern’s new Sirius satellite radio program, after leaving the broadcast airwaves last year. And yet some Northern New Jersey listeners still got to hear Stern on their regular FM radios. Pirate stations operating in Newark New Jersey and Brooklyn, NY aired uncensored excerpts of Stern’s Sirius satellite broadcast, according to the New York Daily News.
The phenomena apparently has spread to the Midwest. DIYmedia.net cites listener reports of unlicensed stations airing Stern’s program in the Minnesota cities of Minneapolis and Duluth. It is not unlikely that there are other Stern pirates operating in other cities around the country.
All the new unexpected affiliates have caught the attention of Howard himself. On January 19, Sirius Satellite filed a complaint with the FCC over the New York and New Jersey pirate stations. Apparently they’re not yet aware of Minnesota’s contribution. Given Stern’s previous pitched battles with the FCC over the content of his former broadcast morning program, it’s delicious irony that he now has to go crying to the feds to silence a couple of micropower transmitters.