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Hearing of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee: HR 3717, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004

Location: Washington, DC











REP. EDWARD J. MARKEY (D-MA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for having this hearing. From our recent hearings we have learned a number of things. We have learned that although the Federal Communications Commission is charged with ensuring that licensees serve the public interest and that stations do not air obscene, indecent or profane content in violation of the law and commission rules, that until very recently the commission has not been an aggressive enforcer of its rules. Testimony from FCC Chairman Powell that cases are still languishing from two to three years ago are not very encouraging indications.

We also learned that although the FCC has numerous enforcement tools, including the ability to revoke a station's license, it appears as though the industry has largely concluded that the commission is a paper tiger. The rare and paltry fines the commission assesses have become nothing more than a joke, and the commission never raises license revocation as a consequence for indecency violations even in the most egregious cases for repeat violators.

And finally, we have also learned that the industry needs to do a better job in educating parents about the tools they already may possess or can utilize to address the myriad concerns they raise with us about what is on TV. Parents can use the ratings system and the V-Chip, which stems from legislation which I authored seven years ago. However, we have a huge educational challenge with the TV ratings system and how parents can use it and its conjunction with the V-Chip. Studies indicate that if a parent of a child 12 and under has a V-Chip ready TV set and knows that they do, that some 47 percent of such parents use the V-Chip and like it.

The problem is with the qualifiers. Almost half of those who have bought one of the approximately 100 million V-Chip capable televisions since 2000 are not aware that the TV possesses a V-Chip. In addition, many parents express confusion over the TV ratings system itself, and one major network still does not use the comprehensive ratings system utilized by everyone else in the television industry. The industry did a good job, and with much fanfare, after the TV ratings system was initially finalized in doing public service announcements and other educational messages regarding the ratings. Yet, those efforts have waned dramatically in recent years. In my view, we need a comprehensive industry-wide campaign to address this issue. The TV set manufacturers and electronics retailers need to do a better job in alerting television buyers to the V-Chip, in part because many retail employees at the stores are apparently unaware of its existence in the TV sets that they are selling.

In addition, print media ought to include the television ratings of programs in the television guide so that parents see them when they look up what is on TV that day or evening. And, finally, I believe that the broadcast industry should renew its educational efforts in order to ensure that television ratings are well understood by parents so that they can assist parents, and I am going to address questions on that subject to each one of the panelists this morning. Specifically, I will be looking for answers today to the following questions: one, will your network air additional public service ads on the television ratings system, and will those PSAs indicate how parents can use it with the V-Chip? I will request that the networks spell out to the committee in writing what their commitments will be in this regard, such as how many PSAs, over what timeframe, at what times of the day and for how many rating points and how long the ads will be.

Second, will your network display the television rating icon not only at the top of the show, but also when returning to the show after commercial breaks? This is important, especially for parents who don't have a V-Chip set yet who still try to utilize the rating system as a tool. In addition, it assists channel surfers who land on that show during commercials and ensures that they get a timely warning as the show resumes.

Third, will your network provide an audio voiceover when the ratings icon appears on the screen? If Dad or Mom is in the kitchen, out of the room or distracted reading a newspaper, they may not see the icon when it appears. A voiceover would help parents hear the rating as the show begins and prompt them to change the channel and protect their children from inappropriate programming.

Four, to the extent to which your corporate parent also includes newspapers or television guides, will you work to include the television ratings in the television guide to better help parents? And with respect to cable programming, I renew my call to the cable industry to educate parents about the TV ratings system through PSAs as well. And in particular I urge the cable industry to make more useful the provisions of the Cable Act of 1992 that permit any cable subscriber to request a blocking mechanism to block out any cable channel parents find objectionable. Right now if a family buys the expanded tier of basic cable but does not want MTV in its house, they can request equipment from the cable operator that effectively blocks out MTV. This is an option that many subscribers simply do not know that they have, and we should explore ways of improving the effectiveness of this provision such as putting notices in cable bills that alert parents to this.

The cable industry called me after the last hearing when I raised this question. They told me that they want to cooperate on this issue. So I would like to work with the broadcast and cable industry in putting together a comprehensive plan of education for parents and ensuring that they understand the technological tools which are at their disposal in order to protect their children. I can't thank you enough, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing.

REP. MARKEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I'd like to ask each of the networks a series of questions that can help us to establish a baseline as to what parents can expect in the future as to information that helps them with their television programming. I'll go down each one of you. Will you display the TV rating icon not only at the beginning of the show, but also after commercial breaks? Mr. Wallau.


MS. BERMAN: At present that's not our plan, Congressman. We plan on changing the icon that we currently have, making it more predominant so that people can see it, and animating it. We do feel that it is very important that our concentration then go to informing people about what that means for them, that icon means, and how they can use the icon better to service their needs as consumers and as protectors of their children.

REP. MARKEY: The point is that a lot of times people tune into a program that's already in progress, so the first time that a parent would actually be able to see the rating for the show was at that commercial break. So, it would helpful for parents to see the rating at the commercial break so that they could then change the channel if they wanted to. So, would you consider at Fox putting it on?

MS. BERMAN: Yes, we will absolutely consider it. I wear two hats as I sit here today as it relates to the network. I am responsible for what goes out over the broadcast. I am also responsible for the aesthetic of the broadcast.

REP. MARKEY: But just putting it on for five or 10 seconds at a commercial break in a corner isn't any great --

MS. BERMAN: It's completely doable and we will absolutely consider it, yes.

REP. MARKEY: All right, that's very important.

Mr. Wurtzel.

DR. WURTZEL: Yes, well, this is the first I've actually heard of it, so we'd have to take it under consideration, but I understand the objective and it certainly sounds like it makes a lot of sense. So what I'd like to do is to be able to consider it and then respond to you when we come back to you with the written request that you asked for.

REP. MARKEY: But there's no technological obstacle to using it even --

DR. WURTZEL: There's no technological-I think, as Gail mentioned, there is an aesthetic issue.

There's a practical issue with respect to how does it work best. The way we do these things is we mock them up and take a look at it.

REP. MARKEY: But people have just come out of two minutes of commercial and God knows what, so the aesthetic of having a little warning on the show can't possibly be that --

DR. WURTZEL: I understand, but you asked a number of questions, including at each commercial break and when-and at this point I'm not in a position to give you a commitment on it, but it's something we would certainly take seriously under consideration.

REP. MARKEY: Mr. Paxson.

MR. PAXSON: Well, actually we've never showed anything on the network in all the years we've been on that would require anything but the family friendly icon. We only have done it once and we did it this week, and that was when we showed The Making of The Passion of the Christ, and we did address it before the program began and at each break in the program, and if it comes to the point again of having to portray that kind of program, we would follow the same concept that we have in the past of doing it after every break.

REP. MARKEY: Would you air an audio voiceover when the ratings icon appears on the screen at the beginning of a show? Would you give them a voiceover, Mr. Waller?


REP. MARKEY: Yes. Ms. Berman.

MS. BERMAN: Yes, we would consider doing that, yes. We have not done that yet.

REP. MARKEY: Mr. Wurtzel.

DR. WURTZEL: We would consider it as well.

REP. MARKEY: You would seriously consider it? Are you favorably inclined towards that?

DR. WURTZEL: Well, we do our own advisories in addition to the TV advisories. Those do appear with both video and audio, so it's not as though we haven't done them in the past. So, the fact of the matter is we have experience doing it and I think that is something that we would seriously look at.

REP. MARKEY: And I have to go to you, Mr. Paxson. Would you do that, Mr. Paxson?


REP. MARKEY: Will you provide us in writing your network's plan for airing PSAs on the TV ratings systems, spelling out the number of PSAs, for how long, over what timeframe, and what times of the day? Will each of you provide your plan to the committee to ensure an enhanced usage through PSA advertising of the V-Chip? Mr. Wallau?

MR. WALLAU: Absolutely. We aired a campaign in 1999 to the end of 2000. We aired approximately 185 PSAs, about 15 per cent of them in prime time. We would expect to exceed that campaign, both in the amount, the number-the span of time of that campaign, and we will lay out the entirety of the plan and report to it at whatever time intervals that you find necessary.

REP. MARKEY: Thank you. My time is going to run out.

Would you dramatically increase the PSAs on the V-Chip, Ms. Berman?

MS. BERMAN: Yes, we are, Congressman, already, and we will be happy to provide you with that plan.

REP. MARKEY: Dr. Wurtzel?

DR. WURTZEL: We will provide you with a plan.

REP. MARKEY: A dramatic increase?

DR. WURTZEL: We intend to include them in the-at this current time there's about four to five minutes of spots forward but 22 to 25 spots per week, and they will be a substantial part of that.

REP. MARKEY: Mr. Paxson.

MR. PAXSON: We've been doing it ever since we met you and your office many years ago and we'll continue, but the quantity and number we will put on paper.

REP. MARKEY: If you all promoted the V-Chip and the rating system the way you promote a new show, we'd be in great shape. Again, 47 per cent of parents with kids 12 and under use the V-Chip if they know there's a V-Chip in their TV set and that information is made available to them. So, I just think that you are in a position if you take this opportunity to give the parents the information which they need, and only you are really in that position-with the exception if I could just ask you this one question, Ms. Berman. TV Guide is a Newscorp company and they don't actually put the ratings in the TV Guide. Do you think it's time for TV Guide and newspapers to put the ratings there so that parents can see it on a daily basis and use it as guidance for the programs that people watch?

MS. BERMAN: I do know, Congressman, that TV Guide provides the ratings on their on-site channel. I also know they provide it on their website. I don't know the intricacies of the magazine as that of Gemstar and it's somewhat separated from my purview, but I will get you that information as soon as I can.

REP. MARKEY: That would help tremendously. It is the way in which people actually follow television, through TV Guide and newspapers --

MS. BERMAN: Yes, I understand your point.

REP. MARKEY: -- and it would really help a lot, and I think solve a lot of the problems if the parents just had the information and the knowledge as to how to use the technology to protect their kids in their own home.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

REP. MARKEY: Would the gentleman yield just briefly?

REP. SHIMKUS: I will, yes, sir.

REP. MARKEY: It's just to say that, for the panelists on the stand, that was a bipartisan bill.

REP. SHIMKUS: I was going to get to that.

REP. MARKEY: And there's no disagreement and any help you give us I think would be very much appreciated by all the members of this committee. And I thank the gentleman for his --

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