Imagine if Congress mandated that Playboy subscribers could peruse their monthly morale booster only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The 1996 Communications Decency Act imposed much the same restriction on viewers of sexually explicit cable TV channels. Addressing the problem of "signal bleed," which can cause scrambled channels to appear clearly on a non-subscriber's television set, Congress ordered cable TV operators to fully scramble or block any channel that is primarily dedicated to sexually oriented programming. If that can't be accomplished, the cable companies must turn the signal off from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The law was in effect from May 1997 until December 1998, when the U.S. District Court of the District of Delaware enjoined it in response to a challenge by Playboy Entertainment. During that time, every cable system in the country which experienced signal bleed simply turned off the Playboy Channel, Spice, and the like until 10 p.m. "If you had a monthly subscription, and there were some 150,000 of those before the law, you lost two-thirds of the value of your purchase," notes Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney for Playboy Entertainment.
The blanket block isn't even necessary, Corn-Revere says. Another section of the CDA already requires cable operators to fix the problem for anyone who complains. There are also private solutions, such as setting the TV to block the channel or programming the remote to skip over it. As for protecting children, two-thirds of U.S. homes have none.
Corn-Revere argued the case before the Supreme Court in November. A decision is expected by June.