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FCC alerts viewers to blocking tools; decides on franchise fees

Wed, 10/03/2001 - 8:00pm
Anne Kerven

The Federal Communications Commission released a fact sheet outlining three tools consumers can use to control their cable TV content. Using one or more of the tools will filter programming, FCC says.

FCC refers to the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which targets signal bleed, or viewers' ability to receive pieces of programs they aren't signed up to get. The agency says Section 504 of the Act "requires a cable television company to fully scramble or block any channel that is not included in the programming package that the subscriber has purchased. The company must fully scramble or block the channel upon the subscriber's request and at no charge to the subscriber."

The fact sheet directs consumers first to their cable company, but if they don't receive "timely assistance," FCC will take the calls.

The agency also recommends viewers have v-chips installed, if they don't have one already — federal law required manufacturers to install the chips in all 13-inch or larger sets by January 2000. Older sets may not have the chips, however, which identifies programs with a certain rating and blocks them.

The FCC's third recommended tool is the cable lockbox, which allows viewers to lock out programs they find objectionable. It directs viewers to their cable companies or retail outlets to purchase the boxes.

Separately, the FCC said cable operators can pass through to customers and itemize on monthly bills the entire franchise fees assessed by local franchising authorities. The fees include those from nonsubscriber-related revenue.

The agency says the action stems from petitions filed by Pasadena, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Virginia Beach, Va.

The Communications Act says cable companies must pay a franchise fee to local franchisors that reimburse local governments for using rights of way. Fees are limited to 5 percent of the company's gross revenue. The agency says the Act doesn't prevent a cable operator from passing part of all of the franchise fees to customers, but says operators can itemize the fees on customers' bills, allowing them to see what portion goes to local governments.

Finally, the FCC noted it hoped operators and governments would negotiate reasonable fees, or modify franchise agreements and redefine the gross revenue provision.

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