FCC chair softens stance

Martin urges self-reg for cable industry

SAN FRANCISCO — Debuting in his new role as chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin told cable operators Tuesday that it could avoid greater indecency regulation by policing itself.

Speaking at the National Cable Show, Martin said, “The cable industry has an opportunity to voluntarily step up” before Congress or the agency acts to extend the FCC’s regulation of indecency to cable and satellite services.

The comments in front of a cable industry audience seemed to signal a softer line on indecency than Martin took in the past, when he was often harshly critical of edgy content on the airwaves and over cable.

Asked point blank if he planned to be “proactive” in expanding the agency’s role on indecency, Martin said the commission has only the power to react to complaints it receives from the public — complaints that in number had grown to “a million.”

“At bottom, the commission is a creature of Congress,” Martin said. “Congress will have to determine whether indecency rules should be applied to cable.”

On Monday, House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) took a much harder line, advocating the use of criminal statutes to go after indecency. “For people who are in flagrant disregard of the rules, I think the criminal process is a better approach than the regulatory process,” he said.

Sensenbrenner declined to elaborate on how criminal statutes could be used to police indecency. “It’s better to aim the cannon directly at the bad actors, without taking a sort of blunderbuss approach with new regulation that will also affect people who are trying to do the right thing.”

Over at the Disney/ABC Cable Networks Group booth Tuesday, newly appointed chief Bob Iger said the Walt Disney Co. does not advocate the extension of broadcast indecency rules to cable.

Disney had been recently reported as siding with industry critics who’ve been urging federal lawmakers to regulate all airwaves as part of an effort to fight growing interest in a la carte legislation.

A la carte, he said, would be “far worse a solution than anything I’ve heard,” Iger told reporters, citing higher costs for the consumer and the certain end of smaller channels.

If, however, indecency regulation becomes inevitable for cable networks, “some logic should apply,” he said. “Viewers don’t distinguish between cable and broadcast,” and because of that ubiquity, Disney would be willing to play ball.