Cable Industry Follows Liquor Model To Keep Decency Police at Bay

David Kiley

In a move designed to keep the FCC from applying decency standards to cable TV, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said its members starting June 1 will better and more frequently display ratings information--larger type size on the TV screen and appearing after every commercial break as well as at the start of the show.

Moreover, cable stations will dedicate $250 million of ad time for public-service-ads under the theme "Take Control. It's Easy." The campaign is meant to encourage parents to use the tech tools available to block inappropriate programming from youthful eyes.

Paging the liquor industry. The cable industry is following the liquor industry model for advertising on TV--infuse ads with alot of cautionary and moderate drinking messages, and run a lot of PSAs about responsible drinking. It's the right strategy. And it's ironic. Cable channels took in over $100 million last year in fresh revenue from liquor companies who are increasingly looking to TV to advertise.

But will it be enough? Morality and decency is a hot-button campaign issue with Republicans, and they are the party in power. Cleaning up cable would be a great achievement to run on for mid-term elections next year. Republican Senator Ted Stevens (Alaska) has already said the industry's response doesn't go far enough. And the FCC may not buy it either. New FCC chairman Kenneth Martin, who favors extending decency standards to cable TV, says, "I think the cable industry needs to do more to address parents’ legitimate concerns."

One idea out there is to regulate the cable companies to allow households to pick and choose the stations they want on their subscription. Currently, cable stations are tiered so that people wind up with stations they don't necessarily want when they get the stations they do want. Cable companies don't like it, but it has a lot of traction in Congress to solve the decency issue and be pro-consumer at the same time.

Meantime, I predict that in a few years, ad supported video-on-demand will really take off for edgy programming like The Sopranos and The Shield.

Think of how much advertisers will like that. Instead of flawed Nielsen technology to track ratings, shows that are 100% pay-per-view will deliver 100% accurate ratings info. And if an advertiser makes my viewing of The Shield cost 50-cents instead of $1.99, I'm happy to let a few ads come through. But under that scenario, if I tape the show, and watch it later, can I still TiVo the ad?

ON the other hand...and this is where it could really get good. Imagine if pay-per-view ads were as edgy and creative as many European ads. On pay-per-view, advertisers wouldn't have to soften up and dumb down their ads for the values police. I can envision cool ads targeted to me that I wouldn't want to skip with my TiVo.

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