Raised-Eyebrow Oversight Keeps Broadcasters in Line

Originally posted: March 31, 2004

One must wonder what the content of over-the-air broadcasting would be today if the Federal Communications Commission had paid as much attention to indecency enforcement over the last 20 years as it has for the past two months. Taking advantage of the opportunity provided by a Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction,” the FCC and Congress have quickened the pace of initiatives begun even before the incident.

The FCC has assessed more fines already this year than in the past 10. The House has passed legislation to increase indecency fines, and Senate action is coming. FCC commissioners and legislators are rattling sabers about regulating violent content and even material delivered via cable or satellite.

The broadcast industry suddenly has ears. Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio station owner, has issued get-tough corporate standards in a Responsible Broadcasting Initiative. Clear Channel fired its most outrageous DJ and will pay his amassed fines without the traditional broadcaster First Amendment rhetoric. Other media biggies, such as Viacom and Emmis, also have announced corporate zero-tolerance policies on indecency.

The National Association of Broadcasters will hold a Summit on Responsible Programming today to encourage members to set voluntary standards of decency. The hope is to ward off further federal meddling by claiming the industry can clean up after itself. Ever its own sacred cow, the NAB is closing this event to reporters and the public.

But these moves, overdue and welcome as they are, should not be considered signals of eventual success in the broadcast content struggle. This contest, indeed, is still in the opening innings.

There are many signals that the broadcast industry is not ready for real reform, and instead is only trying to shore up public image. Nobody wants to invest in publicly traded companies taking a PR beating from the public and the feds. Clear Channel stock has dropped some 15 percent since the start of the year. Other broadcast corporations have had similar declines. Concern for content could easily disappear should the public outcry dissipate and financial trends rebound.

Another sign of broadcaster insincerity came from Viacom President Mel Karmazin in response to an inquiry from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., about a controversial Howard Stern broadcast in February. Karmazin said Stern’s show was not indecent and whined about the FCC’s “vague, generic indecency standard.”

And now we have the usual shrill free speech cries from unlikely talk-radio allies Alan Colmes and Rush Limbaugh. Both have raised the sky-is-falling rhetoric that if the FCC succeeds in regulating indecent content, then government control of political commentary will follow. Limbaugh says he is “frightened” when the government gets involved in content and fears the censoring of political speech on radio. First Amendment framers would cringe to think their precious free speech principle, designed to fuel the conversation of democracy, would be used to defend the “rights” of smut broadcasters to shock the public with messages that have no political or social value.

The FCC’s knees might be wobbling a bit as well. The FCC correctly reversed its decision of last fall and now has decided that Bono’s use of the f-word on NBC last year was, indeed, indecent. But the FCC failed to issue a fine in the matter, saying it had never specifically indicated previously that using that particular word was a problem. Given that the FCC wouldn’t use the current financial penalties at its disposal in dealing with NBC — not to mention the small number of fines issued over the years — can it be counted on to use the full force of the increased penalties Congress will soon provide?

In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow bashed the television industry in his “Vast Wasteland” speech, criticizing broadcasters for programming too much “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder.” This raised-eyebrow technique got the industry’s attention for a short while, reducing violent content and sparking new program initiatives. But the concern soon faded, and violence returned as a program staple.

Surely, reforms under way in the oversight of broadcast decency will be effective only as long as the FCC keeps its eyebrows raised.

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