A commentary on the Federal Communications Commission report

Friday, April 27, 2007

Tim Winter

As best as I can figure, I am the only invited participant who has more than two decades of experience working in the broadcasting and cable industries. I hope my perspectives on the Federal Communication Commission’s just-released report on TV violence offer a unique point of view to the reader.

What Congress asked
On March 5, 2004, 39 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a joint letter to the FCC asking the commission to undertake an inquiry on television violence. I believe the FCC’s report is a positive and forceful response to a compelling inquiry from the Congress. The commission has tackled head-on a very vexing issue in our society today. While violence has been part of dramatic storytelling for millennia, the violence on television today is shockingly graphic and offensively gratuitous and it is being pumped directly into every home in the nation on a daily basis.

The scientific community has repeatedly stated its consensus opinion that such material poses a grave health risk, particularly to children. With its report, the FCC has taken its public-interest obligation seriously in addressing the issue and offering a broad range of solutions.

Contrary to reports in the news media over the preceding several weeks, the FCC did not ask Congress for the authority to regulate violence much like it already has been authorized to do for indecency on the public airwaves. Rather, the option of regulatory oversight was only one of several alternatives raised by the FCC’s report. And that is a good thing.

We support the notion that the volume and degree of violence on broadcast television must be reduced, especially during the times of day when children compose a significant portion of the viewing audience. And we applaud the commission’s endorsement for parents, not the cable industry, to determine which networks we subscribe to and pay for.

Option of last resort
Let me be perfectly clear about the express opinion of the Parents Television Council as an organization, and about my own personal opinion on this matter: Any option which poses a legislative solution to media content is and must be the option of absolute last resort. We have not previously asked for government oversight of violence on the public airwaves, nor are we doing so here. In fact it is our sincerest desire that any government involvement in this issue be avoided. We desperately hope that this report will achieve what has heretofore been fruitless: To motivate the industry to step up to the plate, take responsibility for its product, and fix a problem that it has not only created but perpetuated. And make no mistake about it: The industry has the ability to fix it. The question is whether it will do so.

TV industry’s track record
The likelihood is not promising. If we look at the television industry’s 50-plus-year track record for responsible self-governance in its use of the public’s airwaves, the outlook for action is disheartening. The industry commissioned its own research study to rebut what more than 1,000 other medical and clinical reports have concluded — that violent media consumption has a harmful effect on children. Three years ago industry executives testified before Congress that they would impose a zero-tolerance policy for indecent material, and then they filed suit in federal court to use the F-word in front of children.

Rather than following through on its promise to operate more carefully, the media hired the most celebrated and storied lobbyist in the nation’s history — Mr. Jack Valenti, who sadly passed away recently — to get the Congress off their collective backs. And then the industry proclaimed a combined $550 million initiative to educate parents about blocking technology — an initiative that has been proven to be a complete and utter failure. And the industry continues to herald its TV rating system as a panacea, even though it originally denounced the idea as heresy and censorship.

So they found a way to have their cake and eat it too: The rating system has been proven to be arbitrary, inaccurate, and entirely self-serving to the industry. Did the Congress or the public truly believe that the industry would implement a solution that could reduce its viewership and its revenue?

Path toward legislation
Clearly we are on a path towards legislation. In fact, many reports suggest that the legislation has already been written. The question is whether this report will motivate the industry to do the right thing. We sincerely hope it will.

It is disappointing, in fact pathetic, that some would point to lower national crime rates as ‘proof’ that increased media violence has no impact on children. Given the tens of billions of dollars (hundreds of billions?) spent every year on law enforcement, youth-violence intervention, school programs, criminal incarceration, public-service announcements and the like, it is absurd for such a conclusion to be drawn. But it appears that this argument is the best some can do to counter the weight of medical opinion on the subject.

Let’s touch on medical science for a moment. I am still somewhat new to the public-policy sector, but what continues to surprise me is how, in any fierce policy debate, medical and scientific evidence is pointed to as ‘conclusive’ if it supports your position; and it is deemed unproven, theoretical hokum if it opposes your position. This is true regardless of the issue, whether it is an environmental debate, a reproductive-rights debate, a military debate or a health-care debate. And clearly this is the case with the media-violence debate.

The scientific and medical communities have stated their opinion, publicly and repeatedly, that they are at ‘consensus’ regarding the connection between media consumption and human behavior. I would urge those who oppose reduced levels of violence on television either to point to truly valid medical research that supports their position, or else simply admit that they don’t care about the medical evidence. But I urge you not to go fund a study that is intended to yield a predetermined medical conclusion, particularly when it is outnumbered by a 1,000:1 ratio. There is no public-interest benefit of doing so.

Profit vs. public interest
I appreciate the many passionate opposing opinions on this issue that are truly based on the principles of our beloved Bill of Rights. But I fear the loudest voices are simply focused on money and profit, and the public interest be damned. The public airwaves are unique, and by law it is the public interest, not corporate profit or convenience, which must dictate how those airwaves are used. In the four years that I’ve been involved in this debate, the network broadcasters have never stepped forward and actively participated in a meaningful conversation about the harmful nature of their product. I think that is unfortunate, but given the financial motivation, I suppose it is not surprising.

The only voices I’ve heard in opposition to unbundled cable subscriptions have been voices with a financial stake in preserving the status quo. And why are the most vocal congressional opponents of unbundled cable also the recipients of tens of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in cable-industry campaign contributions?

As a former financial executive in the cable industry, having helped to create, manage and operate cable networks and their program content, I understand the billions of dollars in profit at risk for the industry if it is forced to adopt a true marketplace solution to its programming. But the public is being harmed economically and socially by the current system.

I am confident that we are on the path to a solution like Cable Choice that allows each individual’s media diet to be satisfied. I hope this public debate encourages the industry to take stock in what it is doing — both good and bad — to the public and especially to children. I know the industry is capable of doing wonderful things. And I hope the industry will work harder to do the right thing.

Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council. He is a lawyer with more than 20 years experience in broadcasting, cable, Internet and new media technologies. Winter spent 15 years with NBC serving in numerous management capacities for the GE-owned media conglomerate in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. He also worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he led the legendary studio’s interactive division and its online and video-game publishing ventures.

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