Expanded basic cable has become a Pandora's Box for families. Many parents welcome expanded basic cable into their homes because it opens up a whole universe of family-friendly programming — channels like the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and others.
However, to access these educational and family-friendly networks, families are also forced to pay for channels they don't want and may even be detrimental to their sense of values.
It is wrong to require consumers to pay for a product they don't want — and may even find offensive — in order to get something they do want. It would be unthinkable for a magazine publisher to tell you that in order to get Better Homes and Gardens, you also have to pay for a subscription to Playboy. But in effect, that's exactly what the cable industry has been forcing cable subscribers to do for years. The practice amounts to nothing short of licensed extortion of American families by the cable industry.
Consumers are becoming aware that the public airwaves will continue to be barraged with indecent content unless and until we also address the ever-more-vulgar, ever-more-violent and ever-more-sexually graphic material coming into our living rooms through basic cable (which reaches more than 85 percent of U.S. households).
Our legislators are finally listening. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently introduced a bill (S. 173), which will give the power to us — the consumers — not the cable companies.
The cable industry knows that there is a strong movement afoot to give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to regulate content on basic cable, thus allowing subscribers the option to purchase and pay for only those channels they actually want. In response to this movement, the cable industry announced that it would provide free equipment to subscribers so they can block unwanted channels. The cable industry has also been touting a $250 million campaign to instruct parents how to block unwanted channels. The problem with this is that consumers are still expected to pay for those networks they are blocking from coming into their homes.
The technology and ability to block cable channels has been available for quite some time. However, the industry withheld this technology and even charged consumers for its use in an effort to line its pockets without any regard for what was truly best for their customers. This announcement of a "solution" is at best an empty gesture meant to appease angry consumers and lawmakers, and it shows the industry's desperation to maintain the status quo.
Furthermore, so-called "family tier" packages do nothing to give families choice and control over the content that comes into their homes. "Family tiers" continue to reserve for the cable companies the right to decide what is appropriate for families, but what is appropriate for a 16-year-old adolescent is likely to be highly inappropriate for a 6-year-old child.
The cable industry is employing fear tactics to fight a la carte, hiding behind a fabricated doom-and-gloom proclamation that unbundled cable packaging would increase subscription rates for the consumer. It is outrageous for the cable industry to hide behind a veil of consumer concern after unilaterally raising subscriber rates by nearly 45 percent over the preceding five years.
Giving parents the power to block offensive programs is an important step in the right direction, but consumers are still being made to subsidize them. Offering parents the ability to choose the channels they want — and to pay only for those channels — puts power back in the hands of the consumer. It forces the producers of indecent or violent programming to fund their smut with their own money.
The cable industry has been carried on the backs of American consumers long enough. It is time for this extortion to end.
Stephanie Snow is director of the Portland chapter of the Parents Television Council (www.parentstv.org), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to protecting children from graphic sex, violence and profanity in entertainment.