Decency on TV

Cable and satellite services are more ubiquitous in US homes than ever, connecting to 85 percent of American TV viewers.

Unfortunately, so is pay television's offering of sex, violence, and indecent behavior - an unwelcome coarsening increasingly influencing broadcast television. After the now infamous Super Bowl half-time show, FCC Chairman Michael Powell fired off letters to the nation's broadcast networks, telling them to clean up their act. But he also sent a similar message to the cable industry, urging voluntary restraint.

Technically, Mr. Powell has little to no control over cable and satellite television content, because it is delivered through private subscription. For that reason, cable programming hasn't been subject to the federal regulations of the major networks, available to viewers free of charge via the public airwaves. First Amendment restrictions make even the networks tough to rein in, and the one exception sanctioned by the Supreme Court is to limit some offensive network material to air between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when many children supposedly are not watching.

But Mr. Powell is correct to go after both network and subscriber television, because the lines between the two are becoming increasingly blurred. Media analysts say most viewers make little distinction as to the origin of what they're watching. Subscriber services deliver a huge selection - including the networks. Cross-ownership has further fuzzed the lines. Many popular cable networks actually are subsidiaries of corporations that own the broadcast networks.

Though it's preferable to see cable companies take it upon themselves to screen content, many seem to be doing the opposite, intentionally pushing the decency envelope.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona wants to force cable and satellite companies to offer programs à la carte. That's a good idea, given that the spectrum in even the most basic packages offered by both services runs a wide gamut from children's programming to sexually explicit material.

With à la carte, viewers can specifically choose what they want coming into their homes. But that's going to be a tough sell to cable companies, already struggling with flat revenues and competition from satellite.

At the least, Congress should increase the fines for broadcasters that break the FCC rules. The current amount, $27,500, is way too small for any of them to take seriously.

Voluntary moves already undertaken by network, cable, and satellite TV, such as content warnings or five-minute delays in live broadcasts, can help. But they're not sufficient. Reaction to the latest decency-related episodes shows Americans have had enough.

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