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June 19, 2004

The FCC should let it be

by Alex Mazerov, Page Editor
Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction" during CBS’ national telecast of the Super Bowl halftime show sparked a colossal and seemingly unrelenting conservative and fundamentalist backlash. The Federal Communications Commission, under the supervision of Chairman Michael Powell, was quick to respond. It quickly reprimanded CBS, its affiliates, parent company Viacom, MTV and seemingly every other organization that was somehow involved in the breast-baring incident, and it is still considering imposing fines of $27,500 upon CBS’ more than 200 local stations. The FCC has the authority to enforce decency standards over content broadcast over public airwaves; it has now begun to lobby Congress for the ability to regulate content on cable and satellite television. This power could prove perilous to creativity and to the First Amendment, and it should not be granted.

FCC regulation of premium channels will stifle innovation and creativity that attract so many viewers to cable. A recent study conducted by Nielson Media Research found that 51 percent of Americans watched cable during prime time, compared to 49 percent watching broadcast. Cable viewership as a whole almost always trumps broadcast ratings because cable stations play the groundbreaking and creatively uninhibited programs that network TV is afraid or unwilling to air, programs such as The Sopranos and Sex in the City that time and again dominate awards shows. At the 2003 Emmy Awards, for example, HBO trounced its competition with 109 nominations. NBC, its closest competitor, garnered only 77. If cable TV writers and producers are held to the same decency standards as their broadcast TV counterparts, viewers will be left with too many formulaic, bland and banal programs to watch, with little flare of daring or originality.

Furthermore, FCC policing of cable TV would just add an unnecessary censor to what viewers are exposed to. Advertisers already filter content and force cable stations to maintain a certain level of decency in their programming. They are one reason why we do not hear curse words or see nudity in most cable movies and programs. And all broadcast networks provide advertisers with previews of TV shows that might be construed as controversial or objectionable. A recent example of advertiser censorship occurred when Gatorade pulled its ads from ESPN’s risqué new drama Playmakers, which enraged National Football League brass over its depiction of some fictional professional football players as wife-beaters, drug abusers and steroid users. This backlash prompted ESPN to cancel the innovative and highly-rated series.

Some media watchdog groups say that cable networks should be held to the same standards as broadcast stations, as cable and satellite services are available in more than 85 percent of homes. This ubiquity, they claim, brings cable under the Supreme Court's landmark Pacifica ruling in 1978, which allows regulation of any "pervasive" medium. However, courts have long favored the cable networks, asserting that their First Amendment rights are much stronger than those of their broadcast counterparts, as cable is not carried by means of the public airways. In May 2000, for example, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law requiring cable operators to "fully scramble" programming on adult channels when children may be watching. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the law violated free speech rights.

Seventy five years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, "The prevailing notion of free speech seems to be that you may say what you choose if you don't shock me." Nonetheless, Holmes continued, the essence of the First Amendment is "not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate." Granted, Holmes was referring to political radicalism, but we should all hope that today, the principle of free speech for all would still hold true and that the mores of a single federal agency would not be the sole judge of what is fit to watch.

Imagine if the R-rating for movies was eliminated and theatres allowed only those over 17 years of age into movies that deserved that rating. Even if parents deemed that content in a certain R-rated movie was suitable for their child, or if they believed that the movie possessed some cultural or education significance, their child would still be forbidden from watching the film. This would essentially eliminate the right of parents to decide what their children can be exposed to. The same would be true if the government gained control over cable TV. Program ratings, channel-blockers and V-chips already allow parents to monitor what their children can watch. If parents are paying for cable or satellite TV in their home, they should be savvy enough to self-censor violent or sexually explicit material that they do not want their children to be exposed to. Government regulation is no substitute for parental involvement. And the job of the FCC should not be to police every cable network’s programming.

The application of indecency strictures to cable- and satellite-delivered channels would be an unprecedented extension of the law, which previously acknowledged the distinction between free, over-the-air broadcast and privately distributed, heretofore sacrosanct premium TV services. Regulatory scrutiny of subscription services would curtail the originality and creativity that have drawn so many viewers to cable programs. But most importantly, FCC authority over cable content would infringe upon rights guaranteed to all under the First Amendment and would come dangerously close to government censorship.

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  • cowboysRule on June 19, 2004
    good article.
  • Ross (View Email) on June 19, 2004
    The only way to stop this from happening is to get rid of Bush and the FCC. To help get rid of the FCC go to and sign the petition.
  • Varun Gulati on June 20, 2004
    Amen, Maz!!
    Well written, and VERY well supported article!
  • ar junior on June 21, 2004
    HBO is not a cable channel.
  • ar junior on June 21, 2004
    Your insinuation that creativity and obscenity are mutually inclusive ("If cable TV writers and producers are held to the same decency standards as their broadcast TV counterparts, viewers will be left with too many formulaic, bland and banal programs to watch, with little flare of daring or originality") is ridiculous to say the least. In anything, it is the unobscene shows that reflect the greatest creativity and originality.

    For instance: how many dollars in FCC fines have "The Simpsons," "The X-Files," "The West Wing," "Seinfeld," "Friends," "The Twilight Zone," and "Law and Order" combined for? That's right. Zero.

    And I'm glad that I've finally found somebody at this school that's more conservative than I am. Ross is a psychoconservative compared to me. This man is actually advocating an end to media regulation, which would result in Disney, General Electric, Viacom, Gannet, and the rest of the media giants buying out every last independently owned media outlet. I think we should applaud Ross for having the guts to so much as propose the kind of "let them eat cake" economics that have been a mainstay of modern radical conservative thought.

    Either that or Ross has no idea what the FCC is and does.
  • Kiran Bhat (View Email) on June 21, 2004
    Let me start off by saying that this is a well written and well supported article, but there are a few inconsistencies and untruths.

    First things first, the "colossal and seemingly unrelenting conservative and fundamentalist backlash" that the author speaks of is simply not a conservative fundamentalist backlash. Parents everywhere were upset by the incident. The author seems to say that the only parents upset by the incident were those of red-blooded reactionary Republicans, and that simply isn't true. Even I, a flaming liberal, was peeved that thousands of toddlers and children watched as Janet Jackson pulled her pornagraphic publicity stunt on the most watched program of the year. So the backlash was quite universal, eliciting what I see as a bipartisan response from Mr. Powell and the FCC. The author's politicization of the issue is invalid.

    Secondly, the author seems to assert that cable television is better than broadcast TV because it airs programs that are free-wheeling and more spicy. The author supports this argument by citing the amount of Emmy nominations garnered by HBO. However, just because a network receives more Emmy nods than another, it does not mean the shows are inherently better than the ones on broadcast TV. Emmy awards are just critical indications of a show’s greatness, not the judgment of the public. Please don’t tell me Seinfeld is worse than Sex in the City.

    There are other reasons why cable is so appealing to Americans, mainly the American obsession with detail. Cable news networks, music channels, sports channels, etc. tailor to the different tastes of many Americans, and therefore the majority of Americans buy cable. Cable is not in most houses because it airs racy, edgy programming, but because it appeals to the special interests of hardcore fan bases. HBO is only in about 21 million houses nationwide, and that and other subscription based networks are not as popular as basic cable. Therefore, the statistic the author cited about cable being in more houses is just a reflection of America's interest in detail programming, not America's obsession with shows that are "out there."

    Furthermore, the author states that FCC "policing" of cable would wreak havoc on the first amendment rights of citizens, and is an unnecessary censor on the media. First, the FCC would not "police" cable as if it were state-controlled media. According to their website, the FCC is an organization dedicated to foster the flow of information to the public, not to inhibit it. All that the FCC would do would be to hold cable to standards, undoubtedly less than those of broadcast TV, that would prevent any pornographic or obscenely violent material from being piped into the homes of 85% of Americans. In judging whether material was obscene, the FCC could not create new rules, but would be forced to follow the mandate of the Supreme Court case California v. Mille, which created the standards for obscenity. The author seems to make the case that the Supreme Court has been very black and white on the issue of cable regulation, but indeed the Supreme Court case he cited was a 5-4 decision.

    The argument that the author makes involving an analogy to the restriction of R-rated movies is flawed. Again, the restriction of cable programming would not be authoritarian in nature. No parent wishes their child to view obscene material with the click of a button. And even if parents did wish for their children to do so, the viewing by youngsters of obscene material is corrosive to the nature of a civilized society, desensitizing the next generation to the immoralities of violence and pornography. "R-rated" TV material is not deemed obscene by the standards set forth by California v. Miller, and therefore would not be blocked on cable. In addition, the FCC has shown their good faith when it comes to freedom of speech by instituting the TV ratings system and the V-chip for broadcast TV, a program that allows parents to decide for themselves what their children can and cannot watch. I would think that a similar system would be instituted if the FCC was given the task of cleaning up cable's messy act.

    In conclusion, let's put ourselves into the shoes of a concerned parent. If I buy cable TV to watch the great programming of ESPN, and my ten year old ends up clicking on an adult channel or someone being beheaded (with their head being put in a bowling ball bag and delivered to the man who ordered his death -- an actual episode of The Sopranos), I wouldn't be too happy. At least a ratings system and V-chip for cable would allow me to block my child from viewing this kind of material. It's the FCC's job to make sure that my child grows up in a media environment conducive to his educational, intellectual and creative growth. And plus, this country has never failed when it comes to freedom of the press. If the FCC goes too far, there will be some noise, and it will lose popularity and scope.

    That said, a well-written article with some great facts, but look at the issue from a parent's point of view.
  • TT on June 22, 2004
    the superbowl incident upset anyone who didn't want to see a womans breast with a pasty while watching an anticipated sporting event with their family. What are you guys complaining about? Isn't tv nasty enough for you? I cant even watch tv with my lil sis and brothers some times. there is a fine line between creativity and porn. and americans wonder why other countries think our society has no descency, when people can get it on during prime time on regular stations, hoochies every where...
  • browntown/chechnya on June 22, 2004
    amen, brother bhat. amen.

  • Michael Bushnell (View Email) on June 23, 2004
    Look...the Janet Jackson breast was 0.2 seconds of a pasty covered breast. She wasnt shaking 'em like a hoochie for 10 minutes or something. It's not like she got on a pole and started pretending to be a like a stripper. It was 0.2 seconds, and it wasn't while Jake Delhomme or Tom Brady were throwing passes. It was during the halftime show. 2 tenths of a second! To me, violence is worse than sex. Not everyone will see a gruesome murder in person, as are on TV all the time on shows like CSI (which is a great show). Everyone sees breasts in their lives. People shouldnt get so worked up over it.

    As for the FCC, while I obviously think cracking down is overreacting, it's a necessary evil. The FCC keeps, as ar Junior says, major companies like Viacom, News Corp, or GE, from buying all the news outlets there are, hence controlling what Americans hear. In a way, it protects the first amendment, even though it does things that go against it. In essence, a necessary evil.

    Just for reference, by the way, Michael Powell, is Colin Powell's son.
  • TT on June 28, 2004
    Hey, i wasnt only pointing out the superbowl thing. and she was dancin nasty with that little justin boy... any wayz, im just talkin about family timing thatz all. if you gonna show some stuff little kids cant see, make sure you scedule it up you heard.
  • Betsy Haibel (View Email) on June 29, 2004
    Okay: which is going to be more damaging to the mind of a wee'un? The occaisional f-word or flashed boob on TV (punishable), or the occaisonal full episode about serial kidnapper-rapists (not punishable)?

    The thing about the new FCC regs, as I understand them, is that they go after what is easy to enforce rather than what might actually scar little kids. Myself, I don't think either expletives or disturbing topics should be censored off TV. Parents can just learn to use a G-Chip if they're worried. But for crying out loud, if you must censor, be consistent! Go after what actually matters!

    This abolish-the-FCC stuff, though? Ugh... giving out indecency fines is one of the FCC's minor functions. Getting rid of it would also eliminate its major functions--that's like eliminating the FDA because of the GM food controversy.
  • : on June 30, 2004
    maybe if the government gets enough in fines they can pay off the deficit.
  • Joe on July 8, 2004
    Am I the only one here reminded of the InfoFlow incident a few years back?
  • interested student on July 10, 2004
    what was this incident you speak of?
  • 03 on July 15, 2004
    Info Flow broadcast from inside a bathroom, and supposedly they were told not to in advance, so info flow was suspended for a while
  • rek on February 13, 2006 at 3:27 PM
    im doin a class project and this article is helpin me out alot, One of the only reasons i dont like the FCC regs is when they show a movie on a basic cable channel and the bleep out the bad word our just put in stupid ones instead like "GO FREAK YOURSELF!" it ruins the movie and a lot of the time take away the humor.
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