Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The FCC's Censorship Campaign

A recent New York Times editorial The Censors Lose in Court again raises the question of how much or even whether the Federal Communications Commission known as the FCC should be in the censorship business.

But what does the FCC do? A look at the FCC’s
organization with its seven bureaus and especailly the ten staff offices looks like a prime example of government bureucracy run amok. How much of all of this is really needed? Who knows?

But I think that most of what the FCC does can be categorized into two roles:

One is to regulate how the airwaves are allotted to its many users by licensing. Without someone to do this, it would be chaos with people fighting for broadcast frequencies and interfering with one another. Part of this regulation was to allow adequate diversity of licensees to help ensure enough media choices by consumers. More on that later.

The other and more controversial role is to ensure that broadcasters are ‘serving the public interest.’ With such a subjective guideline, an overzealous bureaucracy can have a field day meddling into our viewing choices. More importantly, when an organization is run by a group of 5 commissioners appointed by the president, 3 of which are normally from the president’s own party, political ideology can trump practicality — especially when it is conservative ideology.

If I have one gripe more than any other with conservative ideologues, it’s with their insistence on smaller government and minimal government interference in our daily lives — except when it comes to enforcing their ideas of moral values.

The FCC has long been involved in promoting ‘decency’. A most notable example is their efforts to regulate the use of George Carlin’s
"Filthy Words" on the radio. And especially under President Bush, the stakes have been raised with the large fine the FCC attempted to levy against CBS for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a 2004 Super Bowl broadcast. And later, we got the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 which resulted in a tenfold increase in fines against broadcasters. The results are as the New York Times editorial states:

The F.C.C. rulings have had a serious impact on free expression. Because the agency’s rules are so vague and the penalties so great, artists, writers and broadcasters have been censoring themselves. Last year, PBS offered two versions of Ken Burns’s documentary “The War,” one deleting the coarse language often used in war for stations reluctant to risk fines.

If you look at the FCC's side of the argument, they are just regulating “indecent” programming that is broadcast before 10 PM. If I were able to at least watch late night TV without censorship, I would be happy with that. But probably because a broadcast that is late night for me in the Eastern Time Zone may not be so late for others elsewhere, these shows have no less censorship than ones shown at other times. And I’m sure that the FCC is showered with complaints from people who don’t approve what they are watching and listening to. But instead of enabling people who want to impose their moral values and tastes on others, these people should be gently reminded that their TVs and radios are equipped with on-off and channel selector controls!

Indeed, some people do find some language and sexual/nudity content to be offensive. And just like I don’t want others to impose censorship on my viewing choices, it is just as important that we respect the feelings of others so they are not unnecessarily subjected to what they feel is offensive. Also as parents, we want control over adult content that we feel is unsuitable for our children. So can we keep everybody happy at the same time? With modern day technology in the form of the
V-Chip, the answer is mostly yes.

Just like the MPAA movie ratings that were introduced many years ago, TV shows now have
Parental Guideline ratings that using the V-Chip technology on most TVs manufactured since 2000 allows parents to block shows that they feel are inappropriate for their children. But just as importantly, this rating system can be used (and with programs blocked if desired) for adults who may find some shows to be offensive.

This doesn’t solve the problem of ‘fleeting expletives’ that occasionally creep into live programming but overall, it addresses the need for offering programming without unnecessary censorship. The only real
criticism of the V-Chip is that it is rarely used due to not knowing about its existence or laziness about learning how to use it. But whose fault is that? To address this, the Ad Council has been running its You're The Boss commercials to help make people aware of the V-Chip.

But there are other alternatives that people are using to get away from censorship. Pay TV services like HBO do not have their content regulated for ‘decency’ by the FCC although their programs do have the Parental Guideline ratings to allow subscribers to be informed of their programming choices. And satellite radio is a refuge for those like Howard Stern who have fought censorship issues on broadcast radio. But hey, that’s not fair! Why should free TV and radio be so regulated while pay services are not? And why is uncensored programming only available to those who can pay for it? But fear not! The FCC feels your pain! If they had their way, they would
regulate pay services too!

There are many more communications issues besides censorship that are affecting us. For example, the conservative movement toward business deregulation now allows single owners to own several radio stations in one city which critics say has lessened competitive choices in both programming and news. And if the current FCC chairman has his way,
more loosening of restrictions for the ownership of media outlets will be coming. And satellite radio which formerly had only two competing companies, Sirius and XM, have just received formal FCC approval to merge creating now just one!

For those who would like to learn more about important communications issues affecting us, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports offers one of their websites

So what can we do about agencies like the FCC which are run by people who do not directly answer to its citizens? Our next president will get to nominate the next 5 FCC commissioners who will run the agency. Who we elect will determine which party will get that crucial 3-2 majority that makes its important decisions. So this is still another reason to get out and vote this November!

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