It's Time for Cable Choices

Anyone with cable television in his home ought to have a sticker on the remote control warning: "Subscribers with children under 18: abandon hope, all you who push these buttons."

As bad as broadcast TV has gotten, with sex and violence and explicit language pouring through the screen, it's nothing compared with what children can find, day and night, on basic cable. Not obscure, late-night, pay-per-view cable, but the cable on your set right now. Offensive content was more than twice as frequent on original cable programming as on broadcast TV, according to a recent study by the Parents Television Council.

The indecency debate is only half-addressed if Hollywood and Washington don't address indecency on cable as well. Take this stomach-turning new example. On the April 6 edition of the cable channel FX's shock-a-thon "The Shield," one of the cops is overpowered by some gang thugs. What comes next is definitely a foul new frontier in cable television content, as grotesque an image as ever has been shown on TV: the cop is forced at gunpoint to perform fellatio on one of the gang members. The camera goes into minutes of graphic detail of the man demanding "Suck it," the head bobbing, the gagging and choking, and then the gang members take photos of this homoerotic humiliation on their cell phones.

We're only lucky that after the act was finished, they didn't shoot the cop in the head on camera, splattering blood and guts all over themselves in the process. Maybe FX is saving that treat for next week.

Basic cable has become a kind of Pandora's box for families. Many parents welcome basic cable into their homes because it opens up a whole universe of family-friendly programming. There's the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, ABC Family Channel, the Discovery Channel, and more. But to access these sometimes educational and usually family-friendly networks, they are also forced to pay for channels they don't want. Now, in addition to trying to protect their children from the filth on Fox, NBC, UPN, and the other broadcast networks, they also have to try to protect their children from the much more explicit fare on FX, MTV, Comedy Central, Bravo, and on and on.

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl MTV raunchfest, how many parents now being forced to take (and pay for) MTV would continue to do so if given the choice?

While members of Congress are urging the cable industry to give viewers more choices, the cable guys argue that the customer is wrong on this one. Allowing "a la carte" viewing, letting viewers choose channels - or more likely, tiers of channels - would reduce the availability and diversity of programming, they claim. Well, yes, Earth to cable salesmen: that's the idea. Forced oral sex depictions are "diversity" we'd rather avoid.

Cable lobbyists say that parents have the option of blocking channels they don't want - but what kind of a choice is that, when they still have to pay for those channels? Analog cable subscribers actually have to pay extra money to scramble the channels they don't want. Consumers need to have a better option.

Some options are already surfacing. In New York City, Cablevision announced an agreement with the YES sports network (the Yankees' TV home). The new deal will allow customers who do not want to receive the YES Network to avoid being forced to pay for its programming. Customers will be able to purchase three sports networks, including YES and two networks owned by Cablevision (MSG Net and Fox Sports New York), as a package or as a la carte options at individual monthly rates. That's an important early example.

There is no doubt that the industry will vehemently oppose any efforts to change, and everyone should expect they will hit every fancy bar and restaurant in Washington to push hard on Congressmen and their employees to stay the smutty course. They will assert that moving toward an a la carte cable menu will lead to economic disaster to the industry and presents problems of technical infeasibility and constitutional violations. But these allegations are false. Parental pressure should persuade Congress to draft legislation capable of withstanding constitutional scrutiny.

Cable is now in nearly as many homes as broadcast TV. Most children live in homes with cable TV. We can no longer afford to ignore the rising tide of vulgar and violent programming on cable. How many new frontiers of sleaze, gore, and profanity do we have to cross before the cable industry realizes the customer is right?