Cable's Creepy Lobbyists

Corporate lobbies give both liberals and conservatives the willies. They don't have one of those strict and thorny ideologies that supposedly ruin Washington. They slickly dance to a different tune, with the title "What's In It For Me?"

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association is one of these lobbies. One of their jobs is to preserve the entrenched cable television system from the demands of consumers. In a press conference at the National Press Club this week, they handed out slick yellow folders with the headline "Cable Puts YOU In Control." Cable consumers should laugh at that one.

In its attempts to control the damage to cable TV's reputation - for being the television equivalent of a man selling skin magazines and gory comic books out of a trenchcoat on a street corner - the NCTA proposed what it would like the public, and legislators, to think is a bold plan of action. It will "spend" the equivalent of $250 million of its advertising time airing public-service announcements explaining how parents can use the V-chip to screen out offensive programming. It will also encourage cable channels to increase the size of TV ratings on screen, and ask they put the ratings up after every commercial.

There's just one itty-bitty problem with these "solutions." Neither of them works.

For the V-chip to work effectively, it must rely on an accurate ratings system. This ratings system is at best wildly inconsistent, with each network making its own decisions determining what is or isn't offensive in its own programming. At worst, it's a joke. As has been documented numerous times, TV producers regularly refuse to attach the very program descriptors ("L" for foul language, "V" for violence, and so on) to programs that would require them. So much for the letter and the spirit of this voluntary ratings system. So much for the usefulness of the V-chip.

How naive is the cable industry that they would push these "solutions"? Don't they know the system is an unworkable mess? Sadly, the answer is yes. So how intellectually dishonest is it for Washington lobbyists to pretend this works, and wrap themselves in the cloak of caring about parental control?

Sen. Ted Stevens, a critic of the indecencies flooding cable television, tried to be nice in response, calling this lame press strategy "a step in the right direction...It shows they're thinking about the issues we've raised." But the lobbyists are not thinking about addressing issues Congress has raised. They're thinking about how to get around the issues Congress has raised. Some might argue that the cable networks putting on a few explanatory ads is progress, since one study found that during all of 2000 Fox, NBC and ABC aired a total of five promos -- combined -- explaining their TV ratings system. But is it really a step in the right direction to take a broken system, a publicity sham, and publicize it more?

Consumers are asking the cable industry a serious question: Why do we have to subsidize MTV "Spring Break" strip shows and FX plots on "The Shield" about cops who get aroused watching rapes on videotape? Even if consumers ever do figure out how to block this raunch, why should they have to continue subsidizing it every month in their cable bills?

Many parents don't like the "choice" of being forced to pay for Hollywood's most offensive "creative visions," and it certainly doesn't leave them feeling in "control" of cable TV. They ask themselves a simple question: Why can I call the cable company to order and pay for HBO when I want it, but I can't call and cancel and stop paying for MTV when I don't? Tom Baxter of Time Warner Cable, in a typical industry response, said that offering customers some channel choice "may end up locking consumers into outdated choices." In other words, consumers can't be trusted to choose what they want.

NCTA's insincerity makes the cable industry look like the tobacco industry. Big Tobacco accepted a settlement that mandated them to spend millions on lame, ineffective TV ads suggesting smoking isn't a good thing. If they really believe this, why not just stop making smokes? If they don't believe it, why are they pushing an argument they believe to be false? The same applies to cable: if you really agree this programming is offensive, a problem for parents - then why are you producing it?

There's only one sincere choice for the industry and their lobbyists to take: Fix it. Clean it up. Give consumers a real choice to avoid the cultural pollution in our homes. At the very least, don't insult us by coming before the press and claiming you give a hoot about what toxic television is doing to the culture, in our homes and in our schools and neighborhoods.