FCC head opposes strict sanctions for indecency violators

By The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said yesterday he did not support a bill that would take away a broadcast station’s license after its third indecency violation.

He also suggested he would support extending decency regulations from broadcasters to other media, such as cable and satellite, if the move were supported by lawmakers.

“I don’t think you should reduce something as facile and vague as indecency to clear cause-and-effect consequences,” he told a conference of the National Association of Broadcasters. “I don’t like the idea that we could trip into license revocation.”

Speaking about decency regulations, he said, “I don’t believe the First Amendment should change channels when it goes from seven to 107. I don’t want to defend that distinction because I don’t believe in it.”

Asked if he would support legislation extending content regulations to cable and satellite, he said: “I think the government should be exceedingly conservative about any regulation of content for anyone.”

He also added: “I don’t generally support the extension of content rules unless Congress supports a statement asking us to do so.”

In a question-and-answer session with Sam Donaldson of ABC News, Powell also said broadcasters would not be required to phase out analog signals in favor of digital signals until 85% of households had digital televisions. One proposal calls for the phase-out to begin in two years, but Powell said that would be much too soon.

Powell also labeled as a “red herring” a proposal by Mel Karmazin, the president of Viacom Inc., for more specific decency statutes. Viacom owns both CBS, which aired the controversial Super Bowl halftime show with Janet Jackson, as well as Howard Stern’s radio show.

“You do not want the government to write a red book of what you can say and what you can’t say,” Powell said.

He compared such legislation to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which spell out mandatory minimum sentences for specific crimes. While such standards make things clearer, they also take away the ability of decision makers to reach their own judgment, he said.