TELEVISION Cable box can block unwanted programs

A federal official says the public needs help in controlling TV programming.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- If you don't want your children watching gyrating dancers on MTV or a scantily clad cartoon character on Spike TV, it doesn't take a V-chip to get it done.
The box that brings cable TV will block channels and programs, too, once the subscriber has punched in the necessary code. Many people don't know that because the cable industry does little to promote the service.
Michael Powell, Federal Communications Commission chairman, wants that to change and recently sent a letter to cable industry officials requesting better ways to advise customers about the blocking service. They have until mid-March to answer.
"The cable industry can and should better inform the public of the tools available to them to better control the programming that enters their homes," Powell wrote.
Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, responded: "We are committed to undertaking new efforts to further this objective and to explore other ways to address your concerns."
Parental tools
In recent years cable customers have been given tools to monitor better what comes on their TVs. Programs are rated for content appropriate for target age groups, and new TV sets contain a V-chip that will block unwanted shows. However, few people activate the chip. A 2003 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found many parents didn't know their TV sets had the technology, and others found it too difficult to use.
Instructions on programming the cable box to block shows or channels are given out when people subscribe, but few buyers read them and fewer still follow them.
TV indecency has become a primary focus for the FCC, spurred most recently by the Super Bowl halftime show during which singer Janet Jackson's right breast was exposed. Along with the letter to the cable industry, Powell has asked Congress to approve a tenfold increase in the maximum indecency fine, from $27,500 to $275,000.
The FCC can impose levies for indecency on the nation's airwaves, which brings television and radio programs that viewers don't have to pay to receive.
It has no such power over cable- and satellite-only channels.
Channel differences
The problem, critics say, is that cable and satellite have blurred the difference between networks. The traditional free networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox -- are just different channels on the cable box.
"The average person sees no difference between the two," said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group.
Cable companies sell tiers of channels. If you want Disney and Discover Kids, you also must take MTV and FX. The only channels ordered individually are "premium" channels like Home Box Office and Showtime.
FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin said he wants to allow subscribers to pick and choose cable channels.
Consumer groups also support the idea.
"We believe this would be one of the best ways to save consumers money and empower those who are offended by some of today's program offerings," said Gene Kimmelman, senior director for public policy at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.