Look for ’08 to be year of broadcast-regulation battles

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Television has been called everything from a “boob tube” and “vast wasteland”
to one of the most significant developments in the history of mankind.

But as we move into 2008, the messages and images that TV brings are a
battleground. In that fight, we likely will redefine what the government can
regulate regarding what we see and hear, not just on television but also across
a host of new media and devices.

At the epicenter is the Federal Communications Commission — a federal agency
created in 1934 in response to the then-new medium of radio. The FCC’s reach
goes well beyond TV and radio today, including virtually all wireless devices
from PDAs to automobile and garage-door remote controls that use radio

But it’s the agency’s involvement with broadcasters, and its potential
involvement with cable, satellite and even newer electronic means of bringing us
information, that’s got Congress, special-interest groups, parents and the First
Amendment community either holding their collective breath or exercising a good
deal of free speech, assembly and petition.

Here’s what to look for next year as the FCC with its three Republican and
two Democratic commissioners tackle various issues:

  • Sex and profanity: Will the commission, reenergized after the
    infamous Janet Jackson incident, continue its stepped-up pursuit of radio and
    television stations, owners and personalities over broadcasts of material that
    stops short of obscenity but that the FCC deems indecent? Or will courts put the
    brakes on this new move that critics say is overwrought, unneeded and

  • Violence: Will the FCC strike out in a new direction, as some said it
    is entitled to do and some in Congress have asked it to do, and move to regulate
    violent images and actions on broadcasts? Or will the issue prove — as some
    contend — just too complex for coherent regulation?

  • New media: The FCC’s ability to control program content now is
    limited largely to radio and television, which use publicly owned airwaves. But
    as direct broadcast satellite, cable TV and even program-delivery-by-phone-line
    become common, will Congress heed increasing calls to expand the FCC’s authority
    to recognize that these new media are as pervasive in society as older

A fourth area of controversy, media ownership, touches most directly on the
First Amendment goal of a marketplace of ideas — in this instance, a
multiplicity of electronic information sources for citizens.

On Dec. 18, the FCC voted 3-2 to overturn a 32-year ban and permit
broadcasters in the nation’s top 20 markets also to own a newspaper under
certain conditions. It’s such cross-ownership that will most likely be the
earliest controversy in 2008.

Some contend that combining financially lagging newspapers and broadcasters
will create new enterprises with more reporting resources, or that limits are
outmoded in an era of Internet and other new-media technologies. Critics say
merged media will cut local news staffs and have even less incentive to be
innovative. Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, wrote immediately after the
party-line vote that “today’s decision would make George Orwell proud. We claim
to be giving the news media a shot in the arm — but the real effect is to reduce
total newsgathering.”

Then there are those in the First Amendment community who say the government
has no business regulating media ownership regardless of the economic or
newsgathering impact.

The FCC first tried to loosen the cross-ownership ban in 2003, but was
blocked by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That same year, a First
Amendment Center national survey found respondents divided on whether or not
consolidated ownership reduces available viewpoints or the quality of news

The FCC’s issue agenda for the coming year reads a bit like an ad for a TV
soap opera: Will “Big Media” win out? Can the FCC muzzle violent programming?
Must cable TV and satellite TV and radio come under the same rules as their
broadcast brethren?

Interested? Stay tuned.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First
Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org.
E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.