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Senate and House Broadcast Indecency Hearings

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Yesterday’s Senate and House broadcast indecency hearings saw the usual grandstanding and puffery, but the problem is real:

    At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., urged cable and satellite companies to offer viewers the ability to pick individual channels for purchase, blocking out violence, sex and profanity.

    The concept of “unbundling” would provide parents with more “control over their television sets,” McCain said.

    Several congressmen criticized the Federal Communications Commission – which already has announced an investigation into the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 1 – for a lack of action in the past. They noted that last year, of 240,000 complaints filed with the FCC about 375 programs, only three citations that might result in fines were issued.

    ….Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, has introduced a bill proposing that FCC fines be raised from $27,500 to $275,000 per incident.

    Other possibilities informally discussed at the hearings:

    1. Institute a “three strikes” rule: Three violations and a station would be off the air.

    2. Spread fines around beyond the current local affiliate stations – add fines for the artists, for example, or for the networks, and tie the amount of the penalties directly into ad revenue.

    3. Require that a TV ratings icon appear after each commercial break. And add a voice-over that parents can hear if they are in another room.

    4. Eliminate a live halftime Super Bowl show; tape and edit it instead.

    5. Re-institute a protected “family hour” for the first hour of prime time. [USA Today]

I can go along with #1-3, especially spreading the fines around to include the actual offenders: do you think Bubba the Love Sponge would be spewing his mindless vile drivel over the radio waves if he was to be personally fined? I don’t want the “three strikes and you’re out” to be automatic, though: we have seen the cruel absurdities such a system has created in California justice system, for example. #4 seems pointless: just have a five-second delay and threaten the performers with forfeiture of fee if they stray from the script. #5 could be part of an overall structure of rules for what is allowed when, although I don’t see anything magical about a “family hour.”

I also very much like the idea of unbundling the cable channels: as it is now you are forced to take one of a few available packages for the convenience of the cable companies. There is no good reason consumers shouldn’t be able to pick and choose the channels they want at no additional charge per channel.

The key to making this all work, though, is making the rules specific, unambiguous, easily enforceable, and the penalties strong enough to assure maximum compliance. Once that system is in place, the overall “chilling effect” that many fear will be moot: it’s uncertainty that is chilling.

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About Eric Olsen