Saturday, May 10, 2003

Do it for the children!

Since taking over the FCC, Michael Powell has done some positive things, such as attempting to loosen arbitrary restrictions on media cross-ownership. But for every good thing Powell, an antitrust lawyer by nature, has done, he has also flirted with some genuinely bad ideas. The latest is his genuflecting before so-called "pro-family" groups who want the FCC to act as a censor over broadcast networks. Consider this column from Peggy Nance of the "Kids First Coalition":

Our rules run to the licensee. At some point, enough is enough." With those words, during his speech to the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas earlier this month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell sent a shiver through the broadcasting industry. The FCC is now talking seriously about revoking broadcast licenses for egregious violations of its decency rules.

This is welcome but long overdue, and it is not by accident. FCC commissioner Kevin Martin met with representatives of a dozen pro-family organizations on March 26. The representatives emerged from that meeting optimistic that support for their position — that the FCC had to be far more aggressive in enforcing its decency standards on television and radio — is growing significantly within the commission.

Both Commissioner Martin (a Republican) and Commissioner Michael Copps (a Democrat) have been quite outspoken in recent months about the need to return to a family hour, when parents and children can gather in front of the screen and enjoy entertainment together without having their values and senses assaulted.

Both the ABC and PAX networks have begun to deliver more family-friendly programming in the first hour of their prime time lineups. This sign is encouraging as networks continue to discover that family-friendly programming can be profitable.

Nance's message seems to be: The networks will do what we think is right, but if they don't the government should force them. Kepp in mind that Nance's views do not represent the majority of Americans, or even a substantial minority. Americans are not demanding FCC censorship of broadcasters. And make no mistake, censorship is precisely what Nance is calling for. She is unhappy with network programming, and since she considers her preferences to be the "correct" ones, it follows that the FCC should implement her will.

Of course, if Nance was that upset about what the networks are airing, she could simply encourage people not to watch television. Alternatively, she could organize an effort to buy her own network.

The "family hour" scheme—essentially censoring network programs between 8 and 9 p.m.—is particularly idiotic. First, many kids are up past 9 p.m. and watching television. Second, the FCC can't regulate cable programming, so the smut will continue to freely flow 24 hours a day. Third, the networks will be forced to cater programming to a particular segment of their audience without regard for the network's own financial and programming needs. The first hour of prime-time is a major revenue generator, and losing even a fraction of that audience to cable could cost a network like NBC millions.

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