As basic cable TV becomes edgier in language and sexual content, families cry louder for help. The industry's self-imposed ratings are farcical. Now it's trying to fend off government moves for "a la carte" cable pricing with offers of "family friendly" packages.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress shouldn't accept the offer.
Consumers need more choices to protect their children, and the best way is to allow them to buy only the cable channels they want and not be forced to purchase the prepackaged channel bundles picked by a handful of media conglomerates.
As long as cable TV remains a government- regulated monopoly in almost every locale, the FCC should not let cable programmers decide what is "family" fare. Allowing the industry to define that word, and thus the meaning of decency, would result in the same problem and continuing confusion among viewers.
Case in point: The FCC has already pushed broadcast TV, where government regulation of the airwaves is clear, into showing family-friendly shows in the early evening. The tactic hasn't worked. As FCC chairman Kevin Martin told Congress last month, the use of profanity during broadcast TV's "family hour" has increased 95 percent from 1998 to 2002, while the number of sexual scenes has nearly doubled.
Hollywood's increasing inability to provide quality entertainment has led it to compete in vulgarity and raciness, with the odd notion that titillation is an artistic necessity and gutter talk is an accurate reflection of society. Its propensity toward soft porn should be relegated to an isolated market niche and not rammed into family homes where cable TV is often the TV of choice.
Free speech and free choice will still be honored if consumers are given a choice in buying cable channels one by one. The technology of wiring entertainment into homes is heading that way, and so should the cable industry.
But the industry claims that a la carte pricing would not be economically feasible, that the less popular programs now indirectly supported by more popular programs would be dropped, and that consumer choice would decrease while overall prices would rise.
The FCC, in a report to be released soon, finds such a dire prediction to be unrealistic. In fact, it finds alternatives for increasing consumer choice and that a la carte pricing would result in a 1.97 percent decrease in prices paid by consumers.
Washington should heed this report and the more than half of Americans who, according to polls, find too much violence, sex, and cursing on television - not to mention the 75 percent of people who want tighter enforcement of TV content. Lobbyists from media giants and their campaign money should not sway government officials from taking the high road on cable TV policy.
Even though parents have many ways to control what programs their children watch, government is the last resort if those controls are failing. With cable now commanding 85 percent of TV viewers, that sense of lost control is rising.
The industry only acts when the FCC threatens it, that's clear. Now it's time for the FCC to act.