Valenti offers parent education plan

In an effort to head off further congressional action on indecency in television, former MPAA topper Jack Valenti unveiled Wednesday a multimillion-dollar plan to educate parents and consumers about existing tools for controlling programming coming into the home.

Valenti introduced the plan before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on decency in media.

Announcement kicked off more than two hours of debate over whether new congressional mandates are needed to protect families from sexual, obscene or violent content.

Leading off the first of two blue-ribbon panels, Valenti told the solons, “I bring something that is unique” and outlined four key elements of the plan.

“First, we are bringing in the Ad Council,” said Valenti, stressing the council’s links to PR and advertising agencies all over the country.

Second, he said, the effort to educate parents will mark the first in which all entities involved in broadcasting, including studios, local stations, networks, distributors and cable and satellite providers, will be involved.

“All these people are going to air these messages over and over again for at least 18 months,” he said.

Third, said Valenti, the group is reaching out to retailers, who will distribute materials reminding consumers that their newly purchased TV has a V chip.

Finally, the effort will include outreach to churches and parents’ advocacy groups, who will send materials to their congregations and members.

“We don’t torment and torture the First Amendment,” said Valenti. “This is voluntary.” He estimated the plan would cost $250 million-$300 million.

Committee chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said that any new legal mandates would likely “be in court for years” and commended the entertainment industry and Valenti “for their efforts to make it easier for parents to control what their children watch.”

He warned, though, that some still believe legislation is necessary, including legislation mandating “a la carte” offerings of cable channels.

The hearings are part of Congress’ inquiry into the possibility of enacting tighter decency regulations for cable and satellite. The FCC recently issued a ruling that could pave the way for a la carte programming, and legislators are under pressure from conservative groups to expand decency standards from broadcast networks to cable nets.

EchoStar CEO Charles Ergen took the opportunity to announce that EchoStar will offer a family tier starting Feb. 1 for $19.95.

Ergen and Comcast exec VP David Cohen, speaking for the distribution side of the biz, said they preferred family tiers to a la carte offerings.

“The problem with a la carte is that the net result, the programming community believes, independent analysts believe, hundreds of organizations and advocacy groups believe, is less choice for consumers, and fewer channels at greater costs,” Cohen said.

But several senators noted that current family tier plans don’t offer the likes of ABC Family and ESPN.

Pressing the possibility of further legislation, several also noted that existing tools that block unrated programs will block live sports, news and emergency announcements.

The most passionate remarks came from L. Brent Bozell, prexy of the Parents Television Council. His voice quaking, he recited a litany of extreme scenes from “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “South Park.”

“The ratings system has been an inconsistent, inaccurate and capricious mess,” he said. “Even if it were accurate, it does nothing to stem the raunch pouring out of the public airwaves.”

National Assn. of Broadcasters chairman Bruce Reese complained that broadcasters should not be held to a higher standard than cable and satellite providers, and CBS exec VP Martin Franks noted that when offered tamer programming, “the audience voted with their remote controls for edgier fare.”

Franks added, “This campaign is the best hope for both a near-term and a long-term solution.”

SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg protested plans to impose higher fines, noting that his members were “hired hands” who don’t write the scripts of the shows they act in and don’t put them on the air.

(Steve Zeitchik in New York contributed to this report.)

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