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Government study suggests FCC can limit TV violence

By The Associated Press
02.16.07

WASHINGTON — Television networks are free to sprinkle their programs with shootings, slashings, torture and other gore because the government has no regulatory authority over violent programming.

But a draft report being circulated at the Federal Communications Commission says Congress can change that, without violating the First Amendment.

The long-overdue report suggests Congress could craft a law that would let the agency regulate violent programming as it regulates sexual content and profanity — by barring it from being aired during hours when children may be watching, for example.

The report also suggests that cable and satellite TV could be subjected to an “a la carte” regime that would let viewers choose their channels.

Citing studies, the draft says there is evidence that violent programming can lead to “short-term aggressive behavior in children,” according to an agency source, who asked not to be identified because the commission has not yet approved the report.

“In general, what the commission’s report says is that there is strong evidence that shows violent media can have an impact on children’s behavior and there are some things that can be done about it,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday.

The issue is bipartisan. Martin, a Republican, gave a joint interview yesterday to the Associated Press with Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps.

“The pressure to do something on this is building right now,” Copps said, noting that television violence comes up regularly during media-ownership hearings he conducts across the country. “People really feel strongly about this issue all across this land. This is not a red state or a blue state issue.”

The report, requested by Congress, is sure to alarm executives in the broadcast and cable industry, members of the creative community and First Amendment advocates.

A bipartisan group of 39 House members nearly three years ago requested a report by Jan. 1, 2005, discussing whether the FCC could define “exceedingly violent programming that is harmful to children.” It also asked whether the agency could regulate such programming “in a constitutional manner.”

The FCC’s authority is limited to licensed broadcast stations. Content on cable networks that is not available over the airwaves is beyond the agency’s reach.

To address cable, the report suggests that Congress could draft legislation that would mandate a “family tier” of programming or a form of channel choice known as “a la carte.”

Martin has long supported such a proposal, as has Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but the cable industry has beaten back a la carte legislation in the past.

“We can’t just deal with the three or four broadcast channels — we have to be looking at what’s on cable as well” Martin said.

Creating a regulatory regime to deal with television violence would present a host of challenges for the agency, say critics. First, the FCC or Congress would have to define excessive violence. The agency is mulling several possibilities, including one devised by Morality in Media Inc., a group whose motto is “promoting decent society through law.”

Even if a definition can be devised, more problematic is the issue of how to determine what is worthy of sanction and what is not.

“Will it count on the news?” asked Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media. “Will it count on news magazines like ‘60 Minutes’ and ‘Dateline’? What about hockey games when the gloves come off and people start punching each other?”

Rintels said such rules would create “huge gray areas of censored content.”

Meanwhile, the agency is fighting challenges in two federal appeals courts regarding how it is enforcing its rules on broadcast indecency.

“The fact that it’s difficult should not take this issue off the table,” Copps said.

Broadcasters are expected to object strenuously to any anti-violence regulatory regime, but have been skittish in going on the record. The National Association of Broadcasters declined a request for comment, as did CBS Inc. Scott Grogin, senior vice president for corporate communications at Fox Broadcasting, also declined comment because the report has not yet been released.

Generally, broadcasters and cable companies say parents should take responsibility for what their children watch and take advantage of blocking technology, like the V-chip, and are sponsoring a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to teach them how to use it.

As for a la carte, Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, said it is an “unnecessary government intrusion in a vibrant marketplace that would result in higher prices, fewer choices and less diversity in programming.”

Broadcasters also claim their shows are becoming edgier to keep up with increasingly violent fare on cable networks.

Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the Parents Television Council, finds these arguments unconvincing.

He said the industry’s campaign to make parents the violence police is “purely designed to convince the Congress that they (programmers) are being responsible.”

The parental-blocking technologies are insufficient due to a flawed television rating system, he said. As for the argument that cable is pressuring broadcasters to be edgier, Isett believes that’s nonsense.

“Virtually all content is owned by six major media conglomerates,” he said. “They own what’s on cable.”

The commission could vote on the report at any time. Martin, Copps and Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate are expected to vote in favor. Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was not immediately available for comment. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell is the potential wild card.

McDowell, a father of young children, issued a statement saying he is “deeply concerned about the effects of television violence” but added the “first line of defense rests with parents.”

“I look forward to examining the legal and constitutional implications of potential additional regulation in this arena as my colleagues and I consider the recommendations we should make to Congress,” he added.


Update
FCC suggests framework for restricting TV violence
Report says Congress could regulate cable, satellite and broadcast television without violating First Amendment. 04.26.07

Related

Senate committee passes bill to restrict TV violence

Measure would limit violent programs to times when children do not make up large part of viewing audience. 09.21.00

Atmosphere ripe for further regulation of broadcast media, say panelists
Participants say federal government is moving toward content, other restrictions on media in effort to control real-world acts of violence. 10.25.00

FCC chief to cable, satellite TV: Clean up your act or else
If industry doesn't find way to police smut, decency standards should be considered, chairman tells Congress. 11.30.05

Appeals judges grill FCC lawyer over profanity rules
Government attorney surprised some when he said news programs could broadcast yesterday's profanity-laced hearing without penalty. 12.21.06

Cable execs decry government regulation
Lawmakers urged to ignore 'vocal and well-funded minority groups.' 05.09.07

2nd Circuit: FCC's policy on accidental expletives is arbitrary
Court sides with Fox TV's challenge, says agency's policy might not survive First Amendment scrutiny. 06.05.07

Watch out for studies about TV harming kids
By Paul K. McMasters There's no sure way to predict how media will affect an individual; in fact, though children's TV watching is way up, youth violence rate is way down. 05.07.06

Insidious censorship: equating violence, indecency
By Craig R. Smith FCC draft report argues violent programming could be regulated without violating Constitution — but evidence doesn't support thesis that pretend violence causes real violence. 03.01.07

Rating & labeling entertainment
Violence & media

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