Cable to sell family plans

Most subscribers could buy packages of shows that they find inoffensive

December 13, 2005|By RICHARD J. DALTON JR. | RICHARD J. DALTON JR.,NEWSDAY

Bowing to government pressure, cable companies serving the majority of U.S. subscribers plan to offer family-oriented packages, industry executives said yesterday.

Time Warner Cable, Comcast and several other cable networks accounting for 56 percent of subscribers will offer the option, said Paul Rodriguez, spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The president and chief executive of the trade group, Kyle McSlarrow, discussed family programming yesterday with the Senate Commerce Committee at a meeting on decency in programming.

Two weeks ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin told the committee that a family-oriented tier would satisfy his push to allow customers to avoid programming they find objectionable. Martin also said that a la carte programming - letting consumers choose which shows they get - would help parents screen channels, but that option is less attractive to the cable industry.

The family service, an alternative to extended basic channels, would probably be available only to digital cable subscribers, McSlarrow said. Of the 66 million subscribing U.S. households, about 26 million have digital cable, which costs more and carries more channels.

The price for family-choice tiers and the channels included would vary among providers, McSlarrow said. It is uncertain how companies will decide what channels to include in family packages.

Mark Harrad, spokesman for Time Warner Cable, confirmed yesterday that in the next few weeks the company will announce a family-oriented package that could be available by March. He said he had no further details.

John Alchin, Comcast co-chief financial officer, told a conference of Wall Street analysts this month that the company would offer a family package. Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick referred questions to the cable industry trade group.

Cablevision wasn't listed among the companies planning to offer family programming, but Chairman Charles Dolan has said he supports allowing customers to watch programming by subscribing to individual channels. Jim Maiella, spokesman for the company, had no comment.

Despite the change among cable companies, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association opposes a family package.

"In a world in which everybody can be offended by something, what is it that you can put into a tier that can make everybody happy?" Rodriguez said. "We think parental controls are the best option because it means each individual household can set exactly what they want their household to get."

McSlarrow, addressing Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said he hopes the cable industry's voluntary actions will persuade the government not to impose new restrictions on cable companies.

"I really hope that you take mandates off the table," McSlarrow said. "If the government intrudes into this place, they will get it wrong."

McSlarrow said family packages, combined with TV ratings and parental control technology such as the v-chip, should be a complete solution to objectionable programming, which he called a "vanishing problem" in the digital age.

Some in Congress are considering boosting the size of fines the FCC imposes for indecent broadcasts, and expanding restrictions on obscenity to apply to cable and satellite providers.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said a family programming package is a compromise that could allow families to avoid a surplus of channels but won't prevent objectionable programming.

"The fact remains, there is no substitute for vigilantly taking care of your children," Thompson said.

"You don't let them get into the liquor cabinet. You don't let them take the car keys before they have a driver's license, and you watch what they look at on television and on the Internet."

Richard J. Dalton Jr. writes for Newsday. Cox News Service contributed to this article.

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