An indecent proposal

Variety Editorial

Last week, President Bush told a group of newspaper editors that he supports government efforts to regulate material on cable TV. Later, a White House spokesman retracted the statement, saying the President didn’t understand the question.

The episode is indicative of the frequent disconnect between Washington and a telecom industry now offering consumers an almost unlimited range of viewing choices.

The indecency crusade against broadcasters has already resulted in millions of dollars in fines against TV networks. Now, a group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), wants to extend the same indecency regulations to cable.

Some of these lawmakers appear trapped in an earlier era, yearning for a day when the telecom landscape was easier to understand and programming choices were far more limited.

Last year, when Daily Variety asked some of Washington’s leading anti-Hollywood solons to name their favorite shows, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) cited “I Love Lucy.” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said he likes “Touched By an Angel,” which had exited CBS’ lineup in 2003.

At least Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss) keeps abreast of primetime TV. He’s a big fan of “American Idol.”

With their expanding menu of racy programming, cabler operators shouldn’t be surprised by the heightened scrutiny from federal regulators. They’re not innocent victims. They push the envelope, loath to admit that their programming might offend anyone. And clearly, there is a vocal constituency — mobilized by the letter-writing campaigns of the Parents Television Council — that objects to the racier fare spilling out of the tube

It’s debatable whether cablers should come up with a stronger self-regulating policy. In 1966, the MPAA created a movie ratings system as a preemptive move to keep the government away from censoring the film biz, which was enjoying its newfound liberation.

Pay TV companies have long said they should be immune from the indecency laws affecting over-the-air broadcasters, since they don’t use public airwaves. Broadcasters lament the double standard.

Still, we’d feel considerably better about the whole conversation if there was more evidence — from the White House on down — that those making decisions about media content actually comprehend what it is they’re talking about.