updated 2/11/2004 11:07:46 AM ET 2004-02-11T16:07:46

Federal regulators to cable-television networks: Cut the smut or you could be next.

As Congress and the Federal Communications Commission ponder cracking down on the airing of indecent material on broadcast television, they are turning their attention to a heretofore sacrosanct medium: cable. In a letter sent to the cable industry's largest trade group and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, FCC Chairman Michael Powell challenged cable companies to voluntarily clean up their act.

While crediting the cable industry for providing TV viewers with a wealth of new programming choices, Mr. Powell said it also "has given rise to more opportunities for the worst programming to invade our living rooms." In his letter to Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association in Washington, Mr. Powell noted that while "much of the focus has been on broadcast programming, I believe the cable industry cannot completely ignore the discontent."

The NCTA sent a hasty response to Mr. Powell, saying it spent a lot of time and money to educate consumers about family-friendly programming and ways to block edgier material from children's reach. "We recognize, however, that there is still more to be done," and the group will provide a more thorough response after talking to its members, said Mr. Sachs.

Unlike broadcast TV, cable content isn't subject to federal regulations that limit sexually charged or other potentially offensive material to the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. when children are less likely to be watching. Previous attempts by lawmakers to rein in cable networks have failed in the federal courts. But with the rapid rise in popularity of cable — about 85 percent of Americans get their broadcast-TV signals from a cable box or satellite dish — legislators, regulators and industry executives alike are zeroing in on the regulatory disparity and how to deal with it.

The FCC doesn't have the authority to regulate the content of cable because it's a subscription service that viewers choose, but the brouhaha over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl is casting a harsh spotlight on all television, not just the broadcasters. And that could embolden Congress, in an election year, to give the FCC more power over content on cable channels as well.

The issue is expected to come up again today as both the House and Senate hold hearings on proposed legislation that would give the FCC the power to levy higher fines against violators. Similar letters were also sent Tuesday to the four major broadcast networks — General Electric Co.'s NBC, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, Viacom Inc.'s CBS and News Corp.'s Fox — as well as their owned-and-operated stations and the National Association of Broadcasters. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC, which is a GE company.)

The broadcasters, though, must walk a fine line of fending off calls for more regulation without their best defense: highlighting the sex and violence shown on HBO, MTV, FX and other cable channels. That's because the parent companies of the broadcast networks have been rapidly snapping up cable networks so that the vast majority of the major cable channels are owned by these entertainment conglomerates. While the companies would like the regulators to ease up on content aired on broadcast stations, their biggest worry is stepped-up scrutiny of cable channels, a growing profit center.

Ironically, most viewers don't know the difference between broadcast and cable channels. "The typical viewer now has got equal access to all of this stuff and the distinguishing feature is a technological one that they could care less about," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. He adds that even if broadcast television could regain its 1950s innocence, "you will only have solved the problem for 20 percent of homes."

While some consumers vocally protest the sex and violence on TV, it's unclear whether there is widespread support for increased regulation. As part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, broadcast and cable networks alike put ratings on their programs warning of potentially offensive content. That law also forced TV manufacturers to install in new TV sets a so-called V-chip that reads these ratings and allows parents to block out certain programs. Since 1999, about 80 million TV sets with the V-chip have been sold, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

"There are about three consumers who use the thing," quips Dave Arland, vice president at Thomson Inc., which makes RCA-brand televisions and was the first company to implement the chip. Mr. Arland notes that the chip wouldn't have done much good against Ms. Jackson's display since sports programming is not rated.

The allure of editorial freedom has drawn producers to cable from broadcast television. David Chase, the creator of HBO's "The Sopranos" worked on the old NBC detective series "The Rockford Files" during the 1970s. David Milch, a co-creator of ABC's long-running "NYPD Blue" has a new Western on HBO called "Deadwood" that — if initial clips are to be believed — makes "The Sopranos" look like "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

For Mr. Powell, the recent aggressiveness appears to represent a turnaround. He had been largely mum on efforts of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to crack down on broadcast indecency. But after he came under fire from Congress in October for an FCC decision not to fine U2 singer Bono for using the f-word on television, he has demanded the commission overturn that ruling and said Ms. Jackson's Super Bowl incident would receive a "swift and thorough" investigation.

Should the FCC succeed in reining in only the broadcasters, it could just speed the exodus to unregulated cable. Last week, NBC edited a scene from its critically acclaimed medical drama "ER" that included a brief shot of an ailing elderly woman's breast. Now ABC is considering editing sex scenes from "NYPD Blue" for its stations in the Midwest, where the show airs at 9 p.m. Central Time.

Steven Bochco, co-creator and current executive produce of "NYPD Blue," declined to comment on ABC possibly editing the show. "We've fought our battles and won our battles," he said, noting that the program's characters started saying "bull-" last year "and it went completely under the radar."

Although free of regulatory scrutiny, cable networks have not been immune to content complaints. Years ago, MTV's "Beavis & Butt-head" was toned down after a young child imitated one of the characters on the show and set his house on fire. Last week, MTV said it would move racier videos to a late-night time slot.

The law has so far been on cable's side. In May 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law requiring cable operators to "fully scramble" programming on adult channels when children may be watching. In a 5-4 decision, the court found the law violated free-speech rights.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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