In our posting of July 17, we asked whether President Bush’s comments to Tony Blair at the G-8 summit, which had occurred earlier that day, could get broadcasters who aired the unedited version into trouble under the Commission’s indecency policies. Well, it looks like the President may have indeed found a unique way to raise government revenue. Press reports yesterday reported that complaints were filed with the FCC asking that fines be imposed on stations that aired the President’s comments without bleeping the "S-word." Specifically, at least one complaint named a Maine television station airing the unedited comments, while another complaint was registered by the FCC about NPR’s coverage of the event.
While unedited coverage of a news event had, in the past, in more tempered times, been found by the FCC to be permissible if the station felt that it was necessary to convey the context of the story (for instance, in the case of coverage of a mobster using some colorful language about the prosecution’s case as he emerged from a courthouse). But these days, with the recent FCC crackdown on even fleeting uses of expletives, stations are unsure of the law, and frightened of FCC actions. And, with recently legislated higher indecency fines, which we reported on on June 16, the fears take on even more urgency for broadcasters.
For instance, CBS plans to air a documentary on 9-11, which includes footage of the reactions of emergency personnel at the site of the collapsing World Trade Center. The reactions to the tragic events include some use of FCC-prohibited expletives. This documentary has already aired twice on CBS without any adverse action. Yet now, certain groups have reportedly suggested that complaints should be filed at the FCC about the upcoming airing of the program. And now, reports state that at least one broadcaster has announced that they will delay the program until after 10 PM – in the FCC’s "safe-harbor" where adult content will not be subject to FCC penalties as the potential for children in the audience is less.
One of the interesting points made in the reports about the complaints about the President’s statement was that many complaints were filed against cable outlets who aired the President’s comments. Under well-established FCC precedent, cable services are not subject to indecency restrictions, as they are paid for by the consumer – and in effect invited into the home – unlike the free media that is ubiquitous. Moreover, in cases where attempts to regulate cable content have been made, the industry has shown that there are parental safeguards that can be used to block unwanted content. Of course, many consumers don’t even recognize the difference between broadcast and cable television stations.
Some have suggested that the answer is to even the playing field and regulate cable too. To me, that is exactly the wrong approach. Instead, broadcasters, who have now had the V-Chip embedded in television stations for years, should make sure that the public is familiar with the existence of that device, and campaign for full First Amendment freedoms – rather than trying to restrict the freedom of others. The V-Chip gives parents the same control as cable systems trumpeted to the Courts when they defeated attempts to regulate their content. As I was writing this piece with the television on in the background, an ad ran for the Cable Industry’s efforts to educate parents on blocking technology – Control Your TV. The FCC itself has an extensive web site on the V-Chip and related technologies. Broadcasters ought to ought to make sure to publicize that parents have the same ability to block over-the-air television programming that they may find offensive, and broadcasters should continue to pursue freedom from the arbitrary regulation that has led to the fear of covering true life topics like the remarks of a President or the reality of a national tragedy.