Under pressure from the government, the nation's two largest cable companies plan to offer packages of family friendly channels to give parents a new way to shield children from sex, rough language and violence.
Industry leader Comcast Corp., No. 2 Time Warner Cable and several other companies will start offering "family choice" tiers, most likely by spring, said Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the main cable trade group.
Details will vary by company, McSlarrow told the Senate Commerce Committee on Monday. He did not have an estimate on the cost, but said the tiers would be tied to digital cable packages, which cost more than a standard non-digital package.
The industry has come under increased scrutiny for raunchy programming, most recently from the head of the Federal Communications Commission. Chairman Kevin Martin urged cable executives at an indecency forum last month to give parents more tools to help navigate the hundreds of channels available to consumers.
Without endorsing a specific solution, Martin offered several suggestions, including family friendly tiers and so-called "a la carte" pricing, which would let customers pick and pay for only those channels they want.
Most cable executives have dismissed the idea of a la carte pricing, saying it would drive up costs and lead to the demise of channels that can't attract enough advertising dollars.
McSlarrow said he hoped the industry's announcement would stave off federal intervention.
"I really hope that we can take mandates off the table," he said. "If the government intrudes into this space, it will get it wrong."
Martin issued a statement in which he praised the concept of "family choice" tiers but did not indicate whether he would back off on his criticism.
"I look forward to hearing more about the details of their plans and hope that it will provide parents with real options to address parents' legitimate concerns with having to buy programming that they believe is unsuitable for their children," he said.
Analysts said it was a smart move by the cable industry.
"Taking action on indecency lets cable manage this issue rather than potentially losing control of it in Congress," said Paul Gallant, media policy analyst at Stanford Washington Research Group.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said lawmakers should wait to see if the family tiers quell the concerns of parents and conservative groups.
"There's no need for legislation now," Stevens said after the hearing. "We have to give it a chance to work."
Jack Valenti, the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, also testified at the hearing and urged lawmakers to let the industry voluntarily tackle the concerns about TV smut.
Valenti said he has had several meetings with cable executives about making the TV ratings system easier for parents to use. He said talks were focusing on trying to make the ratings more understandable — something similar to the familiar movie ratings of "G," PG," and so on.
Some lawmakers and others have complained that current TV ratings designations that include TV-Y for all children and TV-14 for children 14 and older are too confusing.
The other companies that NCTA's McSlarrow said would be offering family choice tiers are: Advance/Newhouse Communications, Insight Communications, Bresnan Communications and Midcontinent Communications.