WASHINGTON — Trying to preserve their electronic pulpits, the nation's religious broadcasters find themselves in the unusual position of fighting an effort by anti-indecency groups to thwart channels offering racy programming.
The issue involves a debate over whether cable companies should continue offering subscribers mainstream and niche channels in bundles, or let them buy what they want on an a la carte basis.
Consumer groups are pushing to let people choose their channels rather than pay for ones they don't watch. One Federal Communications Commission study showed people on average regularly watch only 17 of the more than 100 cable channels they typically receive.
But what started largely as a consumer issue has now morphed into a larger controversy involving whether cable operators should be required to continue exposing subscribers to niche channels, including religious ones, that people might not order on their own.
"We don't just want to preach to the choir; we want to reach the unchurched," said Paul Crouch Jr. of Trinity Broadcast Network in Santa Ana. "The bottom line is that we want to be everywhere on cable."
The controversy is expected to come to a head today when media executives, televangelists, government regulators and consumer activists gather for Open Forum on Decency, held by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have seized on the a la carte system as a way to give cable TV subscribers more flexibility to drop channels with adult fare, citing such programs as the plastic surgery drama "Nip/Tuck" on FX that regularly features sex and gore.
"A la carte is a solution that will immediately address the issue of indecency on cable," said Tim Winters, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council.
The debate has created unusual bedfellows: religious broadcasters that want to keep getting their messages out, and free-speech advocates who are fearful that the unbundling of cable channels is being used by anti-indecency advocates as a tool against provocative shows. It also pits televangelists against their usual allies in trying to clean up language and sex on TV and radio.
Christian broadcasters, including such big names as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, worry that changing the current system will cut into viewership. If that puts them on the opposite side of where they usually stand in the indecency debate, Crouch said, "so be it."
But Winters contends that religious broadcasters oppose more cable choice because they "are very fearful of losing any market share."
To preserve viewership, big religious broadcasters such as Trinity, which owns 33 TV stations, and Daystar, operator of stations in San Francisco and 44 other U.S. cities, are pushing the government to expand regulations requiring that cable operators carry local, over-the-air channels such as theirs.
That has put them at odds with other religious programmers that don't own TV stations, such as INSP and Gospel Music Channel. They fear their shows will be crowded out by channels that cable operators have to carry.
"I don't think the answer to indecency is necessarily more religious programming," said Gospel Music President Charles Humbard, son of televangelist pioneer Rex Humbard. "The answer is for people who know better to correct what's going on ... by extending broadcasting indecency rules to cable."
Cable TV has emerged as a major indecency battleground. Because programs aren't transmitted into homes over public airwaves, operators are exempt from regulations involving sex and language. They also are shielded from the pressures of the FCC, which exercises clout over broadcasters by regulating station licenses.
Nonetheless, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin has urged cable operators to voluntarily rein in racy shows, or risk having Congress do it. Indeed, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seeking support for a bill that would force the cable industry to offer a "family friendly" tier of programming.
But cable companies and major media companies have been fighting government efforts to regulate programming.
"It's not fair to handicap us with these requirements because we want to be free to give consumers what the marketplace wants," said David Grabert, a spokesman for cable operator Cox Communications Inc.
Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corp., seeking FCC approval of their $17.6-billion acquisition of ailing cable company Adelphia Communications Corp., are balking at the government's indecency concerns.
The two companies reportedly have convinced the agency that it doesn't have the authority to require them to offer a family-friendly tier of programming as a condition of approving the deal.
The FCC nonetheless will seek public comment next month on a proposal that would require the cable industry to offer a la carte programming.
Preston Padden, executive vice president of government relations for Walt Disney Co., predicts that if such a proposal is enacted, viewers stand to lose.
"Consumers likely would pay more, and get less," Padden said.
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Cable, which has far fewer viewers than network television does, has become a battleground over indecency.
Average number of prime-time viewers for top cable and broadcast networks
Nick at Night: 1.9
Fox News: 1.8
Source: Nielsen Media Research
Cable network data are year to date through Nov. 20; broadcast network's are season to date through Nov. 20.