The Best Television Filter

“Deadwood,” MTV and shock jocks who do their thing on satellite radio are the latest targets in Washington’s campaign to sanitize American culture. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on Tuesday suggested that federal legislation is necessary to protect children from programming that their parents are paying to have beamed into their living rooms. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) seconded the motion, arguing that cable and satellite services enjoy an unfair advantage over broadcasters, which are bound by federal indecency rules.

Since the beginning of the cable industry, regulators and the courts have recognized the obvious differences between programming broadcast free over the public airwaves and content that isn’t seen or heard unless someone pays for it. Stevens, though, wants to saddle cable and satellite services with the troubled Federal Communications Commission regime that gives bureaucrats (who react in knee-jerk fashion to pressure applied by special interest groups) the power to determine what’s indecent.

Before going further -- and we hope that this is just a trial balloon that will turn out to be made of lead -- Stevens and Barton should read a 2000 Supreme Court majority opinion that settled the issue. Justices sided with Playboy Enterprises Inc., which had challenged a federal rule that prohibited cable operators from distributing their programming during hours when children were likely to be watching. Playboy argued that the rule wasn’t needed because cable companies offered technology allowing consumers to block unwanted shows. Here’s the line that Stevens and Barton should memorize: “Targeted blocking is less restrictive than banning, and the government cannot ban speech if targeted blocking is a feasible and effective means” of protecting children.

The simplest solution for consumers who don’t want their kids exposed to cable is to not write a check to the cable company. Those who still want their MTV can use the filters that make it easy to keep unwanted programming from their children. But, as with V-chips that let parents decide what youngsters see and hear on broadcast television, the filters won’t work unless someone exercises the right to say no. As the Supreme Court opinion clearly states, that person should be a parent, not Big Brother.