Cleaning up cable TV

Something is missing in TV programming. Of 588 commercial television stations surveyed last fall, 29 percent had no regularly scheduled children's programming from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 62 percent had no regularly scheduled after-school children's programs between 2 and 6 p.m. Also, according to a Boston University study commissioned by Action for Children's Television (ACT), a single program -- ''Captain Kangaroo'' -- comprised 43 percent of all children's program hours.

If the networks feel children's shows are not profitable, who can fill the void? Logically, cable television. As the one electronic medium that scrambles for subscribers instead of sponsors, cable's survival depends more directly on giving customers the kind of entertainment they want. The industry aims to plug into half of America's households by 1990 and thus has a huge potential for reaching -- and influencing -- young viewers.

This is why it is disappointing to see the industry getting off on the wrong foot. As reported in an article on our pages yesterday, the biggest growth sector in cable programming is so-called adult programming. Material already being aired in a few cities ranges from ''soft-R'' movies -- with token nudity, vulgar language, or violence tossed into otherwise well-done films -- to hard-core pornographic films. Brochures for some cable services do not inform the prospective subscriber that adult programming is aired in the late evening. In many areas, ''parental guidance keys,'' which allow parents to lock out either all cable stations or offensive programs, are not yet available.

In fairness, it must be said that adult programming is still only a small share of total cable programming. But the trend is worrisome. Parents are understandably concerned their children might view explicit sexual acts on television - if not at home, then at a neighbor's house. Often they are angry at being forced to choose between giving financial support to a company which deals in adult films, or forgoing the sports coverage, cultural programs, and other advantages of cable TV.

Fortunately, parents are not powerless to protect their children and themselves from those who would peddle TV sex. The time to act is when their communities begin to consider the awarding of franchise contracts. They can make it clear that they do not want adult programming, and that they will not renew the contract of a cable company whose programming violates the moral standards of the community as a whole. Or, as ACT suggests, parents and city officials can demand that a free lockout device be provided and that program guides give detailed information on program content, so that intelligent decisions can be made on family TV viewing.

Some fundamentalist religious groups have sought legislation to ban programming which offends their particular definition of ''indecency.'' But such laws violate the First Amendment right of free speech, enabling a handful of citizens to determine what others can view at home. Just this month a Utah federal judge struck down such a law.

The best course is not to legislate a list of ''don'ts'' for the cable TV industry and risk violating the Constitution but to draft a list of ''dos'' and see that it is implemented in the community. The industry is in business to keep the customer satisfied - so it is up to the customer to speak up. Cable TV promises great benefits for the public; it also threatens further erosion of community standards unless the public is willing to act.

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