Karmazin quizzed about content

'Pornographic' programming piques Senate interest

The debate over the threat of anti-competitive damage that an XM-Sirius merger could cause quickly became an argument over racy content Tuesday as a Senate panel began its examination of the $4.7 billion deal.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, grilled Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin about some of the content aired on the satellite radio services.

"I'm sure you don't categorize it as such, but some would call it pornographic," said Brownback, a fundamentalist Christian and presidential contender who was the driving force in the Senate behind legislation that raised fines broadcasters face for indecent content tenfold to $325,000 per incident.

Reading off a litany of racy programming that features adult-film stars and is sponsored by businesses like Playboy, Brownback asked Karmazin if he would submit to the same regulations that broadcasters face.

"It's an easy yes for me, but I don't know what the standard would be, so the answer is no," Karmazin said. "I can't give you that commitment."

Karmazin told the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel that in its recent license renewal request to the FCC, the company promised to block programming that parents found offensive. Subscribers also could request a rebate for the channels they blocked.

"We do believe that we are entitled to airing content adults want to hear," Karmazin said. "They can restrict it and not pay for that service."

While Hatch, a Mormon who writes inspirational music as a hobby, questioned Karmazin about the content aired on satellite radio, he admitted that there was little the government could do.

"I think we have too much on our radio airwaves and TV sets," he said. "But unless we have the guts to define it, you can't really say what we can put on in a free-speech situation. Anyway, I don't think it has much to do with this merger."

Hatch's main concern seemed to be that Christian content was not given short shrift in the combined entity. Karmazin told the lawmaker he doubted that would happen because of the popularity of that programming.

While the content discussion marked most of the hearing, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., focused on the possibility of competitive harm, saying that the combination could create a monopoly that could be "virtually unrivaled and unchallenged in this area."

It's a notion that Karmazin sought to dispel. Just as he told two House committees, he said that a merged XM-Sirius would compete against everything from the iPod to traditional radio broadcasters.

"We believe that the combination of Sirius and XM will be good for consumers as it will intensify this competition, expand the choices for consumers and reduce prices," he said.