The Indecency Argument Is Over

For seven long hours on Tuesday, November 29, they argued. Some 25 panelists representing the networks, the cable industry, the satellite industry and family organizations (this writer represented one of the three family groups invited) met with Sen. Ted Stevens’s (R-Alaska) Commerce Committee in an attempt to resolve the wretched state of affairs of entertainment programming. But what happened outside the room was the big news of the day. There may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Sen. Stevens, along with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) laid down the gauntlet at the outset: Unless the participants could find a way to stem the flow of raunch pouring out of our television sets and blasting out of our radios, Congress will — will — step in.

They had every reason to be unequivocal. Every national survey shows the public is absolutely fed up with indecent, obscene, vulgar, offensive, inappropriate — you pick the word — programming flooding the airwaves, aimed at impressionable youngsters, and all because corporate behemoths could care less who they offend so long as they can make a buck. And for seven hours, predictably, the industry resisted, using one smokescreen after another.

They argued endlessly that no one wants government to control content. It sounds so good, particularly because you know the boogey-word that surely follows. Censorship! It was a dodge, and not a very good one at that. Of course no one wants government oversight, except government already has oversight, mandated by Congress in the Communications Act of 1934, and affirmed by the Supreme Court. It states that the public airwaves are owned by the public, and any network using them must — not should, must — abide by community standards of decency between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The industry has grossly, deliberately violated this law time and again — because it could. For years a toothless FCC refused to exercise its oversight responsibility, and when finally it awoke from its slumber three years ago, it found its authority — a fine of $32,500 for violations — was laughable in the eyes of multi-billion dollar media giants. For two consecutive years the House has passed new legislation increasing the fines to a real $500,000 maximum per violation with the threat of a three-strikes-and-you’re-out license revocation for repeat violators. Although numerous Senate bills have been proposed along these lines, nothing has moved in that chamber. Passage of a similar bill there would put real pressure on those in the industry breaking the law.

They argued next that the V-chip miraculously could resolve it all. There’s only one problem. It’s been around for over a decade now and is an unmitigated disaster. It relies on the ratings system. Innumerable studies have shown them to be a useless tool, a mumble-jumble mess of inaccurate, or misleading, or simply missing content and age descriptors. Surprise, surprise. The very industry responsible for the indecent programming is responsible for attaching ratings to it. The V-chip as a tool to control indecent content has actually backfired. With the ratings system in place, the industry has introduced the most obscene programming ever and justified it by placing "Mature" labels on it.  

Their third and final argument is the clincher: There is a market for this indecent content, and if the market wants it, the market should have the right to receive it. Anything that violates that rule is an infringement on free speech and artistic freedom, etc., etc.

It is here that the news outside the packed hearing room was volcanic. The FCC is set to release a report showing cable rates will actually decrease, not increase as the cable industry has been insisting, if basic expanded cable goes "a la carte" (aka "cable choice"), meaning that the consumer is allowed to choose what networks he wishes to subscribe to on cable. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has also formally endorsed the "a la carte" restructuring of cable.

And that’s the road map for a solution: Broadcasters must abide by the law governing indecency on the broadcast airwaves, and suffer the legal consequences otherwise. If they wish to air indecent programming, they can put it on their cable networks, to their hearts’ delight. The handful of media giants that control broadcast television also own two-thirds of everything seen on cable, so they have endless delivery vehicles at their disposal.

With cable choice in place, the consumer who wants grizzly violence, raunchy sex, and potty-mouth language can have it, simply by choosing to take it. The consumer who wants this offensive junk off his family’s television set can choose not to have it, and will no longer be forced to subsidize it.

It is the perfect market-based solution, giving the industry everything it wants — except the ability to extort billions of dollars of cash from offended customers.