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Decency standards sought for cable TV, satellite radio

WASHINGTON -- Two top Republican lawmakers yesterday said they want to apply broadcast decency standards to cable and satellite television and radio to protect children from explicit content.

Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, said he would push legislation this year to accomplish that goal, and Representative Joe Barton of Texas, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, said he would back it if it does not violate free speech rights.

''Cable is a much greater violator in the indecency area," Stevens told the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents hundreds of local television and radio affiliates. ''I think we have the same power to deal with cable as over-the-air" broadcasters.

''There has to be some standard of decency," he said, but added that ''no one wants censorship."

Stevens cited the discussion of masturbation and sex toys during prime-time television as one example of content that bothered him. He told reporters he would extend the restrictions to premium channels like HBO as well.

''If we can work out the constitutional questions, I'd be supportive of that," Barton told reporters later at the conference. ''I think they ought to play, to the extent possible, by the same rules."

The legislation could become part of a pending bill to boost fines on broadcasters who violate indecency restrictions or part of an effort to overhaul US communications laws.

Last year the Senate Commerce Committee narrowly defeated an amendment to a bill boosting fines for indecency that would have extended such limits to cable and satellite services.

While lawmakers and some parent groups are eager to crack down on indecency after singer Janet Jackson bared her breast last year during the Super Bowl halftime show, President Bush has said parents are the first line of defense and can just ''turn it off."

Federal regulations bar broadcast television and radio stations from airing obscene material and restrict indecent material to late-night hours when children are less likely to be watching or listening.

A spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents cable operators, said the high court had previously ruled that regulating subscription television services violated free speech rights.

''We believe any regulation of cable content raises serious First Amendment objections," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the group. He said subscribers can have channels blocked if they want.

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