February 21, 2007
FCC Discusses Increasing Authority Over Violent Programming, Cable and Satellite

Among the big news items over the past few days is a plan from the FCC to move forward on more actively regulating violence on television and--perhaps most controversially--to expand that regulation to cable.

The decision stems out of an extensive study the communications group has made over the past few years to find ways that Congress can allow the FCC to regulate violent programming, all within the realm of the First Amendment.

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

The report also focuses on furthering these restrictions to cable and satellite channels, such as focusing on "a la carte" programming.

Of course, media effects research plays a key role in the justification behind why we need to censor violence, and children remain the key to that justification as well.

The AP story says, "The recommendations are sure to alarm executives in the broadcast and cable industries, members of the creative community and First Amendment advocates." In particular, people are raising questions about violence on the news.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times asks, "Just what, exactly, constitutes a program that's too violent for kids to watch on TV?" In the clever editorial, called "Will C-SPAN Count?" the paper's editors write, "What censorship would do is deter networks from airing valuable but bloody shows that don't quite qualify as news, while generating lawsuits over what inevitably will be inconsistent standards for judging violence on TV. "

Eric Bangeman with ars technica writes, "Assuming the FCC could make such a determination, the biggest roadblock would be constitutionality. Regulating obscene material is fairly straightforward as a result of the Miller test. Regulating violence is much more difficult." Bangeman likens the "evidence" at the need to regulate violence to that cited against video games. He says that these studies are "unlikely to impress a judge." "In order for a court to allow regulations to stand, there would have to be a well-established scientific consensus that television violence leads to real-world violence in children." Of course, Bangeman is talking about a utopia, where First Amendment speech is at the heart of everything our country stands for, which is the ideal but not always the case.

But the real question is whether cable should in any way be a part of this discussion. Bangeman writes, "Even if you can make a case for the government regulating broadcast television--after all, it is licensed by the FCC, is transmitted over spectrum allocated by the federal government, and is freely available to anyone with a TV and an antenna--cable is a different beast. Cable is an 'opt-in' service."

The Progress & Freedom Foundation gives a list of materials that urges the lack of logic behind "this quixotic endevour."

For more on my take, see my recent six-part series here on the C3 blog, Access vs. Censorship, in which I identify two strands of media regulation on the government's part--one about issues of access, the other about issues of restriction, and urge Congress to prioritize issues of access. These new decisions from the FCC are exactly the type of restriction I was referring to.

And add to that all the recent indecency talk, and we have a sure-fire recipe for further government drives for censorship. It's the one thing that is guaranteed to gain bipartisan support in Congress, it seems.

Guess this gives plenty more fodder for FCC FU.