The chairmen of the Senate and House committees overseeing the broadcast industry said Tuesday that cable television programs should be subject to the same indecency rules as broadcasters using public airwaves.
Cable programmers believe that "we don't have any authority to deal with cable on indecency," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who became Commerce Committee chairman in January. "We'll take them on and let the courts decide."
Cable channels such as Viacom Inc.'s MTV and News Corp.'s FX aren't subject to federal indecency rules covering language and sexual content. A bill to extend indecency rules to cable failed by one vote to pass the Senate Commerce Committee last year, chaired at the time by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), head of the House Commerce Committee, said cable and broadcast TV "ought to play on the same field. If we can work out the constitutional questions, I'd be supportive of that."
The committee chairmen commented to reporters after speeches to broadcasters at a Washington conference. Barton said he would talk to Stevens about legislative strategy.
Neither Stevens nor Barton said when they might introduce a bill, or whether they would introduce separate legislation or try to attach a cable-indecency provision to another measure.
The FCC issued a record amount of indecency fines last year and levied its highest fine in November, for $3.5 million, against Viacom to resolve complaints about radio host Howard Stern and other broadcasts.
Efforts to subject cable to indecency fines are likely to trigger a lobbying campaign that would pit cable operators against broadcast networks.
"Cable technology already provides families the tools to block unwanted channels from entering the home," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.
"We believe any regulation of cable content raises serious 1st Amendment objections."
The Supreme Court held in 2000 that U.S. indecency standards applied only to broadcasters such as General Electric Co.'s NBC and Viacom's CBS.
Broadcasters have argued that basic cable channels should be subject to the same indecency rules as the broadcasters are.
"A 5-year-old doesn't know if they're watching cable or over-the-air," said Edward Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which represents local TV stations.
Any legislation regulating cable indecency is likely to be struck down by the courts, said Rudy Baca, an analyst at Precursor Group, an investment research firm in Washington.
"Unfortunately for any proposed law, the Supreme Court has already tipped the legal balance in favor of protecting the 1st-Amendment rights of the cable companies," Baca said.