SAN FRANCISCO — Whether depicting intimate acts on HBO's "Sex and the City" or uttering a single four-letter expletive 162 times in one episode of Viacom Inc.-owned Comedy Central's "South Park," cable programmers have long sought to lure subscribers by dramatizing the very things that federal regulations prohibit on broadcast television.
But now, the creative innovation and sexual explicitness that have distinguished the cable business are placing it at the center of the nation's cultural hot zone: the debate over indecency.
As industry leaders gather here at the annual National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. conference this week, a possible crackdown on cable content is weighing heavily on their minds.
"It's scary," said one cable executive, referring to a proposal last month by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to apply broadcast indecency rules to cable. "We don't really know what he's thinking."
"It's raised everyone's antenna," said another executive, who was reluctant to be quoted saying anything that seemed confrontational. "You're a little more careful now."
Historically, the cable industry has been immune to indecency regulations because it does not use the public airwaves, instead relying on private networks and requiring viewers to subscribe. Then, Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident at last year's Super Bowl unleashed a broad public outcry about explicit entertainment, prompting Congress to propose raising indecency fines on broadcasters.
With cable and satellite TV now reaching 85% of all U.S. homes, the question in Washington has become why broadcasters alone should face such penalties. And that's bad news for the cable industry.
If a compromise cannot be reached, cable executives here warn, some of America's most-watched shows could become targets, including such "basic" cable offerings as "Nip/Tuck" on News Corp.'s FX and Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants," which some critics allege promotes a gay lifestyle. Premium cable channels, such as HBO and Showtime, could also face restrictions.
"Viewers are in jeopardy of losing some of their favorite programming unless they speak up," said Johnathan Rodgers, a longtime television executive who is now chief executive of TV One, a cable channel aimed at African Americans. The 5 million people who watch FX's "The Shield," for example, "should let their congressmen know, because other people are labeling it indecent," he said. "That's a judgment call."
Stevens, the 81-year-old lawmaker, has emerged as a leading critic of cable since January, when he became chairman of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the broadcast industry. In March, he vowed to take on cable programmers who argue that any attempts by Congress to rein in cable would run counter to constitutional guarantees of 1st Amendment rights that have been upheld by the courts.
"We wonder why our children are sexually active at a young age," Stevens said in a speech to the National Assn. of Broadcasters. "The public airwaves are increasingly promoting sex ... Cable is often worse."
At the NCTA convention Sunday, Stevens seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone. After a demonstration of so-called blocking technology, which allows parents to control what their kids see, sources said Stevens said, "You're farther along than I thought."
But Stevens is not the only advocate of possible cable restrictions. Another is Kevin J. Martin, the new Federal Communications Commission chairman, who previously has backed the voluntary creation of a family-friendly tier of cable channels that could be offered to consumers -- a measure Stevens supports. It is unclear, however, who would decide which channels would be eligible.
The FCC currently defines broadcast indecency as material that depicts "sexual or excretory organs or activities" or that is "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards." The rules are enforced on programs airing from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are more likely to be watching.
Martin, who will discuss his views today during a question-and-answer session here, has not taken a formal position on cable indecency since becoming FCC chairman last month. But in four years as a commissioner, he has called for the FCC to be more responsive to parents who are trying to shield children from explicit content.
"Over a year ago, I urged cable and satellite operators to help us address this issue. Thus far, there has been no response," Martin said in a written statement last year. Describing himself as "sympathetic to the many people calling for the same rules to apply to everyone -- for a level playing field," he said, "something needs to be done."
With such sentiments ringing in their ears, industry leaders have scrambled in recent weeks to arrive at this NCTA conference armed with voluntary proposals to help control children's access to graphic programming. The idea is to head off government intervention while stopping short of self-censorship.