Empowering the FCC

On June 15, President Bush held a signing ceremony at the White House for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, a new law increasing the maximum fine for indecent TV programming tenfold, from $32,500 to $325,000 per violation.

The president knows the problem. The current maximum "is meaningless. It’s relatively painless for them when they violate decency standards. And so the Congress decided to join the administration and do something about it …The Congress got serious."

It may have taken three years too many, but when Congress finally acted, it did so in an overwhelmingly bi-partisan fashion seldom seen in Washington anymore. The House bill passed by a 397 to 35 margin. The Senate version sailed through unanimously.

And why not? The public, in red and blue states alike, is fed up with the raw sexual sewage and graphic violence being poured onto the airwaves they own. A December Associated Press poll found 66 percent of those surveyed said there was too much sex on TV, and 68 percent said there was too much violence. Other polls have pegged public disgust in the 80-and 90-percent levels.

In that sense, it was a no-brainer vote, but this is Washington, D.C., where nothing is simple, and ultimately, it also took real courage. Credit should flow to the Congress and the president for risking offending a very powerful lobby in the broadcasters, who not only broadcast filthy entertainment, but also broadcast the news, which helps people decide who to elect to the Congress and the presidency.

The Congress and the president heard, and responded to the outcry. The broadcast networks have been, and continue to be, tone-deaf. How can our media elite find so much pessimism in our society about our future in Iraq, or our future planetary health, or our future economic success, and totally ignore the public’s pessimism about how Hollywood — that is to say, they — are polluting the culture? The media barons are opposed to the public interest in a shameless, grasping, greedy way, every bit as shameless as these networks have portrayed the Big Oil barons in the last few months.

We can easily steal this "inconvenient truth" line from Al Gore: It’s a seriously inconvenient truth for Hollywood that they have been pressed, prodded and preached, and finally it took federal legislation, in the form of massive potential fines, to get their attention.

It would have been preferable to leave the government out of this popular-culture equation, but it came down to federal intervention after Hollywood’s absolute refusal to live up to its stated commitment at self-regulation. The networks’ offerings of a ratings system and V-chip were as fatally flawed as they were calculated: Hollywood knew these would do nothing to protect children from the barrage of filth that Hollywood is dumping on the public airwaves right in front of impressionable youngsters. The V-chip relies on the flawed ratings system. The ratings are inconsistent, inaccurate, arbitrary and unreliable, not just across the various networks but even within networks themselves. Parents simply cannot rely on these to protect their children.

It’s important to state this bill Bush signed does not change in any way the current broadcasting decency standards. It only increases the potential fines for egregious violations, like strip teases during Super Bowls, deliberate droppings of the "f-bomb," and the like. Just about anything short of that will fail to trip the sensors at the FCC. Turn on your TV tonight and you’ll find the broadcast airwaves filled with filth, garbage rising right to the line, but not over that line, that could trigger a penalty.

That’s Hollywood’s commitment to self-regulation for you.

And how’s this for that commitment to self-regulation: The four largest networks and 800 of their affiliates quietly have gone to court demanding the right to air the f-word and the s-word on the public airwaves any time and anywhere they wish, no matter how many children are watching.

CBS is going even further. After the Janet Jackson striptease, the head of CBS was hauled before Congress to explain himself. After apologizing for violating the public trust, this man announced to great fanfare that CBS now had a "zero-tolerance policy" toward indecency. That same network has now gone to court to appeal the subsequent half-million dollar fine it incurred, now arguing there’s nothing indecent about a woman stripping off her clothes in front of tens of millions of impressionable children during the Super Bowl. That’s self-regulation, Hollywood style.

Ultimately, the massive increase in potential federal fines became a reality for one reason, and one reason only: Hollywood cannot be taken at its word.