President Bush said some surprisingly sensible things in conjunction with signing the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 yesterday, reminding parents that they have primary responsibility for what their children watch on television.
The Act increases broadcaster liability for indecency by a factor of ten, raising fines up to $325,000 per indecency infraction, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as sexual or excretory content of a “patently offensive nature” between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The new law comes two and a half years after Nipplegate rocked the 2004 Super Bowl. The Act does not include earlier provisions that would have allowed individual performers to be fined for infractions, broadcast license suspension after three offenses, and did not bring cable and satellite broadcasts under the FCC’s purview.
Speaking to a crowd of assembled legislators and dignitaries including FCC Chairman and decency crusader Kevin Martin, Bush said, “Every day our nation’s parents strive to raise their children in a culture that too often produces coarse, vulgar and obscene entertainment.”
“In our free society,” he continued, “parents have the final responsibility over the television shows that their children watch, or the websites they visit, or the music they listen to. That’s a responsibility of moms and dads all across the country, to make sure their children are listening to or watching the right kind of programming.”
This question of ultimate responsibility is central to the legal and philosophical debate going on around the country over broadcast standards and the role of government in enforcing them. The debate may be coming to a head as the major networks and their affiliates went to court in April seeking to overturn a new round of indecency penalties proposed by the FCC in March, including a record $3.3 million sanction against the CBS teen drama Without a Trace.
Continuing his signing speech, Bush then turned his attention from parents to broadcasters. “Parents are the first line of defense, but broadcasters and the electronics industry must play a valuable role in protecting our children from obscene and indecent programming,” he said. “Unfortunately, in recent years, broadcast programming has too often pushed the bounds of decency. One study found that during the hours between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. the use of profanity on television shows increased … by 95 percent … from 1988 to 2002.”
“Since 2000, the number of indecency complaints received by the FCC has increased from just hundreds per year to hundreds of thousands,” Bush said. “In other words, people are saying, we’re tired of it, and we expect the government to do something about it.”
Perhaps, but the president didn’t mention that a very large percentage of those increased complaints come from a very few sources, in particular anti-indecency lobbying groups like the Parents Television Council.
Taking an understandably self-serving approach, Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said, “In issues related to programming content, NAB believes responsible self-regulation is preferable to government regulation. If there is regulation, it should be applied equally to cable and satellite TV and satellite radio.”
On the one hand the public airwaves ARE finite, owned by the people, and available to the broadcasters only at the people’s pleasure; on the other hand, most people get all their TV — including broadcast stations — via cable or satellite these days, so why should cable and satellite stations be regulated differently from broadcast?
That’s what the courts will decide.