The Public Policy

Restoring Decency

Broadcasters need to clean up or pay up.

By 6.8.06

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Overcoming powerful opposition and many months of delay, Congress has provided American families greater protection from indecent broadcasting. Late last month Jack Valenti, lobbyist extraordinaire for Hollywood and all it stands for, told an audience, "No one today knows what is indecent." Since then I've been trying to find Mr. Valenti's address so I could send him the most recent edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary -- which defines indecent as being "grossly unseemly or offensive to manners or morals."

If that is not enough for Hollywood's mouthpiece I also have a copy of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) regulations which state: "Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."

It might be news to Jack and his cohorts that since 1978 the Supreme Court has recognized that broadcast licenses are, in essence, a contract between the government and those wishing to utilize airwaves owned by the American public. Broadcasters are granted the freedom to use a spectrum of the public airwaves as long as they abide by the public interest obligation set forth by Congress and enforced by the FCC.

Now it is no surprise that Jack doesn't know decency, since the industry he defends has been defining decency down over the last few decades. The occasion that he used to make his statement was at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention where he was introducing (and this is no joke) a $300 million advertising blitz to help parents control the shows their children watch. While, as a parent myself, I believe parents need to play an important role in what their children watch, I also realize for many parents it is impossible to regulate 24 hours a day what their children see or don't see.

This attempt by broadcasters is a disingenuous way to counter efforts in Congress to increase the amount of the fines at least tenfold that the FCC can levy (currently the fines are a mere $32,500). I call the attempt disingenuous because around the same time as Jack's speech CBS and other broadcast networks asked a U.S. appeals court to overturn FCC decisions that found broadcasters violated decency standards. The FCC had proposed $3.6 million in fines against the networks for decency violations, including about $3.3 million against CBS stations for airing an episode of the murder mystery show Without a Trace that depicted teenagers engaged in an "orgy." CBS's first response to the fines was to rebroadcast the offending episode.

Before you feel bad for poor CBS keep in mind that just the estimated ad revenue for 12 episodes of Without a Trace is over $32 million -- a $3 million fine is just considered the cost of doing business. The true mystery in the scenario is why Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) supports the networks' plan but has fought behind the scenes to murder the legislation that would raise the FCC fines.

I'll be honest, I don't watch much television. The last program I can recall watching on broadcast television was ALF, a sitcom about a furry alien who crash-landed on Earth. Yet when I sat down and watched some of the shows that the FCC has recently fined I was the one who felt like an alien from another planet. The scenes, depicting underage sex, intense sexual situations and utterances (I won't repeat them in case my parents read this), clearly fit within the Supreme Court's definition of indecency. Traditionally the FCC has sat idly by while broadcast television tried to redefine our culture -- I have been assured that will no longer be the case.

We now have an FCC that is concerned about what children are exposed to through the public airwaves. All the sitting FCC Commissioners have voiced support for an increase in indecency fines and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has already increased the number of fines levied against those who would abuse the public airwaves. However, unless these fines are increased these multi-billion dollar broadcasters will never get the message. Broadcasters need to clean up or pay up. For too long Hollywood has held the "controls" in the effort to define our culture. Thanks to Congress's action, concerned parents may now begin to take it back.

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About the Author

Tony Perkins is the President of the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C. based public policy organization.