Crusader scrambles to clean up cable TV
Founder of Protect Our Children takes anti-smut effort to halls of Congress
The Washington Times
March 15, 2000, Wednesday, Final Edition
BYLINE: Carl S. Ey; SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
SECTION: PART A; CULTURE, ET CETERA; Pg. A2
LENGTH: 1178 words
Flipping through TV channels one afternoon six years ago in his Southern California home, Tony Snesko accidentally stumbled on a porn channel, right next to the Cartoon Network.
The signal was scrambled, causing his color TV to broadcast in black and white with a fuzzy, white line cutting through the screen on the far-right side. But the scrambling didn’t come close to hiding the man and woman actively pursuing their sexual passions.
His outrage led him to the halls of Congress and ultimately to help create a piece of legislation he claims cost the Playboy Channel $25 million.
First, Mr. Snesko, a former Poway, Calif., city council member, videotaped the offending program. Then he founded a nonprofit organization, Protect Our Children.
“What started Protect Our Children was the Federal Communications Commission basically telling me that they didn’t have hard-and-fast guidelines for regulating indecency on television and regulating obscenity,” the 53-year-old says. “I had a station in Seattle, Washington, that at 10 o’clock at night had these three homosexual men, not scrambled at all, sodomizing each other . . . right there on public-access television.”
The FCC told him the only way to make a change was to introduce a new amendment to the Telecommunications Act, legislation that was being sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat.
With the help of his congressman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, Mr. Snesko wrote the amendment and got the American Family Association to underwrite 550 copies of the pornographic video.
Next, he went to Capitol Hill with copies for all 435 congressional offices.
“Every morning, I did a Jericho walk around the Capitol, just praying for God to do a miracle,” says Mr. Snesko, a devout Christian. “In every single office that I walked into, they were telling me that there was no way he Mr. Dingell was going to allow this into the bill.
“I sat down in the Longworth Building in this window sill and said that I should just go back to San Diego. I am wasting my time.”
He had visited 213 offices by that point. As he prayed, he claims that the Lord spoke to him – not in a voice, but in a clear manner – and asked him who was doing this, him or the Lord.
He resumed his visits; then, “as I left the 435th office, my pager rang and it was Chairman Dingell’s office, which had called and said, ‘We are putting your legislation in,’ ” he says.
Although the bill died that year, it was picked up in 1995 after Mr. Snesko visited all 100 Senate offices that June. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, picked up the legislation and amended it to eliminate broadcast obscenity from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. as opposed to a complete ban.
Today, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Section 505, says cable programmers that offer sexually explicit material must scramble both sound and vision for non-subscribers and only transmit from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
A one-man organization, Protect Our Children has a Web site – www.protectourchildren.org – but still no payroll, no newsletter and only Mr. Snesko as a volunteer.
Mr. Snesko continues to work to understand the FCC and its codes for controlling what is available for the viewing audience. He wishes to further define those codes, particularly with regard to the differences between obscene and indecent material. According to the FCC, obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment and may not be broadcast at any time.
But Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer arguing on behalf of Playboy before the Supreme Court in November 1999, contended that indecency is protected by the First Amendment. The FCC agreed in part, by admitting it could not be banned entirely. That is, the FCC can ban broadcasts of indecent material during times of the day where there is a reasonable risk that children may be watching.
“The law only says that it is the manner in which you communicate your message that can make it obscene or harmful to minors or indecent,” says Bruce A. Taylor, president and chief counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families. “Materials that are indecent are only unprotected when they are broadcast to minors.”
Although Mr. Snesko has been trying to get the FCC to give him the guidelines for indecency in broadcasts, he says the FCC tells him the guidelines are a gray area that constantly changes and is determined by contemporary community standards.
“I asked who sets the contemporary community standards and the FCC said the media,” the director of Protect Our Children said. “So really, they control their own destiny.”
He is also concerned about channels such as HBO, to which 25 million families subscribe, thinking they are receiving only movies. Mr. Snesko notes that, after 11 p.m., cable channels can – and do – air pornography. When these channels are occasionally offered free as a marketing tool, they come into the homes of basic cable subscribers without the family’s consent.
“We provide weeklong broadcasts of HBO once or twice a year,” said Ellen East, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Cox Communications Inc., a major national cable-TV operator, which holds the franchise in Fairfax County. “The programming is carefully selected so we don’t have this problem.”
Then she added, “A significant amount of customers say they want adult television . It should remain an option.”
Mr. Snesko is also concerned about the problem of “signal bleeding.” His sexually graphic 45-minute video is the result of signal bleed, the partial reception of video and audio signals in the homes of non-subscribers due to a partial scrambling by cable operators.
“I think the motivation behind signal bleed is marketing,” says David L. Hudson Jr., a lawyer at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Only the homes that don’t subscribe get signal bleed. It is like a teaser.”
When Mr. Corn-Revere told the Supreme Court last November that a simple phone call to the local cable company will lock out all signal bleed, Justice Stephen Breyer retorted: “Don’t force parents to opt in or out.”
Mr. Snesko would like a constitutional amendment adopted to give federal and state governments the right to establish community standards.
“I am trying to reach the campaigns for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain and get them to commit to me that they would make the FCC enforce the current laws that are already out there,” he says. ” The FCC is interpreting them in a very liberal fashion, and I think that is because of President Clinton’s support of Hollywood. They don’t feel the pressure to enforce the laws. As long as he is in the White House, it is like tires on ice. I am just spinning.”
Having moved to the District, where he works as a federal liaison to high-tech firms, Mr. Snesko is undeterred.
“Each state should be able to set their own standards for what they think is obscene and indecent,” he says.