Matter of Convenience

Watching Warner Cable's recent rush to cloak itself in the First Amendment was to be reminded of a time, not so long ago, when the people who operate one of Houston's two cable television franchises weren't such free speech absolutists.

That was two years ago, when Warner Cable, after fielding complaints from some viewers, yanked a music video that included sequences of semi-nude women off the Public Access Channel, then rescheduled it for a later time slot. Back then, Warner Cable division president Ron McMillan took to the opinion page of the Chronicle to defend his company's actions, arguing that it was "outrageous" for proponents of such "free speech" to claim that Warner was somehow abridging anybody's First Amendment rights.

"Clearly, this type of sexually explicit material lacks redeeming value and is offensive to a broad cross-section of our community," McMillan wrote. And it was "wise" to be concerned about the content of programming on public access television, McMillan added, because "in many communities where public access channels exist, they are often used by organizations preaching messages of hatred or discrimination."

Last week, however, McMillan was sounding like a card-carrying member of the ACLU as he tried to fend off City Council's attempt to censure self-described "satirist" Howard Stern for his witless mockery of Selena and Mexican-Americans. Pushed by Ben Reyes, the Council passed, by a 13-1 vote, a non-binding resolution asking that Warner Cable cancel one of its offerings, the E! Entertainment Television, unless the network canceled the video version of Stern's radio show that it carries six nights a week. (It's arguable that the Council could probably find something better to do, but as Mayor Bob Lanier correctly noted, there was nothing wrong with councilmembers using their pulpit to express community outrage at Stern's remarks.)

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In explaining why his company couldn't accommodate the Council's request, McMillan pointed out that the E! network had voluntarily decided not to run the Stern show that included his remarks about Selena. He also noted that Warner Cable is contractually prohibited from censoring or blacking out any program on any of the networks or channels carried on its system. (Although according to a Federal Communications Commission spokesman, the only cable censorship that the FCC prohibits by law is of programming on public access channels.)

But, niggling legalisms aside, McMillan warned the Council that there was a larger concern at stake. "At issue here," he lectured, "is who decides what we watch on TV. Your resolution proposes that the city decide, or maybe you want us to decide. Do we take off everything that anyone finds offensive? Or do we take off only what some groups find offensive? I can tell you that if we start taking off programs that someone or group finds offensive, there won't be anything left on television!" (A world too cruel to contemplate, no doubt.)

And while he personally finds Howard Stern and Beavis and Butt-head offensive, "what is offensive to one segment of our society is not offensive to others," McMillan said.

Of course, when what's offensive to a "broad cross-section" of the community is on the non-commercial Public Access Channel, which Warner provides as part of its contract with the city, it's okay for the cable company to exercise some discretion in what it carries into subscribers' homes. When it's the uplifting Howard Stern show on the intellectually stimulating E! Entertainment network, half of which is owned by Warner Cable's parent company, Time Warner Entertainment, asking the cable company to exercise some discretion in deference to community standards is tantamount to a trampling of the First Amendment.

Warner Cable's hypocrisy didn't go unnoted by James Moran, the artist whose music video drew Warner's red pencil in 1993 and led to revised programming standards on the Public Access Channel.

"I think," Moran says, "that they defend the First Amendment whenever it's convenient."

-- Jim Simmon

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