WASHINGTON—Parents who subscribe to cable TV for its learning opportunities may end up teaching their children about a subject they'd rather avoid: pornography.

Estimates show that as many as 39 million homes could be receiving uninvited pornographic programming because some cable providers do not fully scramble the signal of “premium” sex channels.

One man from Poway, Calif., made 550 copies of a videotape showing the Spice Channel as it appeared on his television set at 9 a.m. in the spring of 1994. He sent a copy of the tape to every member of Congress.

A Florida woman complained to her congressman in 1995 that she found her kids at 4 p.m. “transfixed” in front of the television by scenes of “a naked man sodomizing a woman” and the “groans and epithets that go along.”

The Supreme Court began hearing arguments Nov. 30 on the constitutionality of a 1996 federal law prevents cable systems from offering sexually explicit networks during the daytime if they fail to fully scramble the signal for nonsubscribers. Playboy, which owns Spice, sued and won in a lower court in 1997.

Justice Department attorneys warned that if the Supreme Court justices allow the law to be overturned they “would leave children exposed to graphic, sexually explicit audio and visual programming that our society has long viewed as entirely inappropriate for them.” A court decision could arrive as early as next spring.

In an interview with the Register, Playboy attorney Bob Corn-Revere said, “We agree that there's a regulatory interest for the government, but you don't use a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.”

The problem is not really as bad as the government would have Americans believe, said Corn-Revere, claiming that there were likely fewer than 39 million cable subscribers receiving uninvited pornography.

And it isn't the channel's fault when some do, he added.

“Playboy sends a completely scrambled signal to the cable operator,” he said. “It's something that varies from provider to provider.”

Concerned parents, he said, can program their remote or VCR to pass over the channel or they can request a free lockbox from their cable company that will completely scramble the image.

Why the Bleed?

Bruce Taylor, of the National Law Center, said he thinks the broadcasting of semiscrambled images is not done by accident.

Taylor told the Register, “It's to tease the guys into ordering. They see the ‘Picasso Porn’ and they think, ‘For $20 a month, I can put it all together.”

The phenomenon of semiscrambling, or “bleeding,” is limited almost exclusively to pornographic channels, he said. “Other premium channels seem to block all of it,” said Taylor, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Justice Department.

Corn-Revere called Taylor's accusations “completely wrong.” He said that he was able to catch the Disney Channel a few years ago even though he hadn't ordered it. “It was bleeding,” said Corn-Revere.

Taylor remained unconvinced. “I'm subscribing ill intentions on Playboy, which is my freedom of speech,” he asserted. “But if you don't invite them, then your home shouldn't be invaded.”

Corn-Revere called the federal law “regulatory overkill” because it limited adult programming to the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. period.

Taylor said that the law is hardly draconian: “[The law] says nothing about what Playboy can put on their channel. They only have to block the signal [from bleeding] before 10 p.m.”

Taylor, a former prosecutor from Ohio, said Playboy also tried to deny that the law should affect its programming.

“They're trying to argue, ‘We're not pornographic or indecent,’” he warned. “They're looking for unfettered access on cable. And if it's not indecent, they could put it on broadcast. That's a pretty scary thought.”

Karen Gounaud is founder of Family Friendly Libraries, Springfield, Va., which encourages libraries to implement software to block Internet porn. She thinks that the cable law is good but won't suffice.

“This is about greed and power and a total loss of our moral senses,” she said. “Laws will not settle this. It will keep the finger in the dike but the dike will burst unless we go back to moral-centered living.”

She said the pornography industry doesn't stop the semiscrambling for the same reason it opposes filtering software in libraries.

“They want to create more customers,” she said. “With a little exposure, they want to come back. Then they get addicted and [the pornographers] get the money.”

Gounaud added, “The real problem isn't the bleed. The question we need to ask is, Why do we have people that think pornography is necessary for a healthy life?”

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Family Friendly Libraries can be reached at www.fflibraries.org.