Adult Content on Community Networks

Fibrant has decided to offer premium adult content to subscribers that choose to receive it. Salisbury's approach and response offer a window into the benefits and responsibilities inherent in building a triple-play network that offers services directly. As a gesture to those who are publicly opposed to such content being available, the channel listings do not show up to the subscriber by default -- which is to say that you cannot even see the scrambled channel unless you take action to tell Fibrant you would like the option of purchasing adult content. The reason for offering the adult content? Much like the reason most community networks get involved in television at all: it helps pay the bills. The margins on premium content are high and competitors also offer these options locally. However, a number of people are morally opposed to such content -- this has been a particularly sensitive issue in both Utah and the South more generally. Opponents to community networks generally take this opportunity to rally some opposition to the network in general. Years ago, we wrote about a similar situation in Burlington, Vermont, because they carried the Al-Jazeera English international news channel. The lesson we draw from these situations is that running a community fiber network is not all about creating economic development and educational opportunities. There are many issues that may be confronted, and some are messy First Amendment discussions. When a community takes responsibility for its future, it really has to take responsibility for its decisions. When Comcast or Time Warner Cable chooses the channels, these problems may lurk under the radar because no one expects TWC or Comcast to take community needs or desires into account when they choose their channel lineup. But when the network is owned locally and accountable to the public, the public has a voice in the decisions governing the network. Controversy on adult content on television may well subside over time, as few are actually proposing to censor the same content delivered via words, photos, and video over the Internet. The Salisbury Post editorialized a similar point:
While there’s no perfect choice here, there is this reality: Even if Fibrant declined to offer these channels, it would still be a conduit for pornography, just like any other Internet provider. The online world is awash in porn, with literally hundreds of millions of websites available. Rather than suggest Fibrant should assume the role of blocking access to such sites — an intervention that would rightfully provoke civil-liberties outrage — subscribers fully expect to decide for themselves what online sites they will patronize or shun. The same should hold true for their TV viewing options.
On the flip side, an opponent of carrying adult content on Fibrant's TV services noted that the community makes the rules for itself and they can simply decide that adult content is inappropriate in their community. One philosophical problem with this approach is that the U.S. has a strong tradition, embodied in the Bill of Rights, of protecting speech -- and that included everything from dollars to videos nowadays. Nevertheless, the reason is sound: to protect the minority from the majority. Communities could just as easily choose to ban all violent content… or content that does not directly represent certain religious views. Liberal communities may ban Fox News, and Boston could ban MLB for showing the Yankees winning the penant. Rather than banning some content, it seems that the best approach has been broadly allowing content and letting individuals making those choices of what to view themselves. Nonetheless, we do believe these are important conversations in which communities should engage. Communities that are considering building networks and offering services directly should figure out what television carriage policy they will use. Who will ultimately make the decisions? Staff? A citizen committee? A city council that allows day-to-day politics to influence decisions? An appointed board that is somewhat removed from the pressures of politics?