WASHINGTON - Sexed-up, profanity-laced shows on cable and satellite TV should be for adult eyes only, and providers must do more to shield children or could find themselves facing indecency fines, the nation's top communications regulator says.
"Parents need better and more tools to help them navigate the entertainment waters, particularly on cable and satellite TV," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told Congress on Tuesday.
Martin suggested several options, including a "family-friendly" tier of channels that would offer shows suitable for kids, such as the programs shown on the Nickelodeon channel.
He also said cable and satellite providers could consider letting consumers pay for a bundle of channels that they could choose themselves - an "a la carte" pricing system.
If providers don't find a way to police smut on television, Martin said, federal decency standards should be considered.
"You can always turn the television off and of course block the channels you don't want," he said, "but why should you have to?"
Martin spoke at an all-day forum on indecency before the Senate Commerce Committee. It included more than 20 entertainment industry, government and public interest leaders with differing views on whether broadcast networks, cable and satellite companies need more regulation.
Cable and satellite representatives defended their operations, and said they've been working to help educate parents on the tools the companies offer to block unwanted programming. They also said "a la carte" pricing would drive up costs for equipment, customer service and marketing - charges that would likely be passed to subscribers.
Others at the forum, such as the Christian Coalition, urged Congress to increase the fines against indecency on the airwaves from the current $32,500 maximum penalty per violation to $500,000.
Since the Janet Jackson "breast-exposure" at the Super Bowl nearly two years ago, indecency foes have turned up the pressure on Congress to do more to cleanse the airwaves. But efforts to hike fines have so far failed.
Even so, Committee Co-Chair Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, told the forum that lawmakers want to see the industry help protect children from indecent and violent programming.
"If you don't come up with an answer, we will," he said.
Congress is considering several bills that would boost fines.
Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said some critics have complained the bills don't go far enough and that decency standards should be expanded to cover cable and satellite.
Currently, obscenity and indecency standards apply only to over-the-air broadcasters. Congress would need to give the FCC the authority to police cable and satellite programming.
Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said the government doesn't need to intervene, and that there's more room for self regulation.
Some lawmakers also complained about the TV ratings system and said it was too confusing for parents. But broadcasters said they weren't ready to give up on the V-chip and the ratings system it uses to help identify programs with sex, violence or crude language.
Jack Valenti, the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, cautioned lawmakers to let the industry come up with a solution. Otherwise, he said, "you begin to torment and torture the First Amendment."