FCC hearings seen as just theater


Indecency on the airwaves has become such a hot button issue since Janet Jackson's Super Bowl stunt that there will be two hearings today in Washington - and no shortage of politicians and regulators making pronouncements about the decline in broadcast standards as they promise reform.

But even as the TV networks race to delete images of nudity and sex from such prime-time dramas as ER and Without a Trace in an effort to show that they can police themselves, media historians and analysts say real, lasting change is unlikely. As dramatic as the pictures and soundbites coming out of Washington today might be, it will be mostly political posturing, the experts say, merely the latest movement in a dance between Hollywood and Washington that started with the Communications Act of 1934.

"It is absolutely political theater - especially on the part of Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Powell," said Douglas Gomery, resident scholar at the American Library of Broadcasting at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-author of Who Owns the Media? "These hearings are not going to result in any meaningful change in the kind of television that comes into our homes over the network airwaves."

Dwight Teeter, co-author of Law of Mass Communications, called the hearings "a shell game ... political pandering at its worst.

"You only hope the public isn't too misled by the networks and the politicians, because there are important issues to be discussed - once you cut through the headlines about breasts and the political posturing in Congress," he added.

The networks and their affiliates are concerned to some extent about increased regulation in the wake of the Super Bowl fiasco. Their concern is the reason Sunday's 46th Annual Grammy Awards Show was broadcast on a five-minute delay by CBS. It is also the cause of CBS' deleting an image of male nudity from Without a Trace last week, as well as NBC's editing out a two-second glimpse of an elderly woman's breast in the medical drama ER.

ABC is trying to get in on the act this week by announcing it might edit the long-running police drama NYPD Blue in such a way as to have two versions of each week's episode available for affiliates - one for stations in the East that air the series at 10 p.m., and another that's been more heavily edited in terms of sexual content for those in the Midwest and Mountain states that air it earlier. (The FCC says children are most likely to be watching TV between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and the agency has therefore imposed its strictest indecency standards during that time period.)

Today's hearing in the House is on legislation that would fine stations 10 times the current amount for carrying material judged indecent by the FCC. Network officials, FCC commissioners and representatives of the National Football League will testify before the House panel today.

"With my bill multiplying FCC fines for indecency tenfold, networks will do more than just apologize for airing such brazen material, they will be paying big bucks for their offenses," said Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who introduced the legislation before the Super Bowl flap.

At the Senate hearing, most eyes will be on Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat, who wants to link increased fines for indecency to a ban on violent programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Furthermore, Hollings wants the FCC to revoke the licenses of stations that air indecent or violent material during those hours. License revocation is the most severe penalty the FCC can impose. Powell and the four other FCC commissioners will go from the Senate hearing to Upton's House inquiry.

But analysts say there is little chance Hollings' ban on violence and call for license revocation will ever become law. And, while Upton's effort to increase maximum fines to $275,000 from the current $27,500 is expected to pass with President Bush backing it as a way to help parents protect children from unwanted media messages, it will result in little change.

"So the fine is increased? So what? What's $275,000 to a television station - or, more importantly, to a huge company like Viacom that owns the station?" Teeter asked.

The one thing on which all media analysts agreed is the importance of seeing today's hearings and the Super Bowl fallout in context of the larger issue of media consolidation on the part of companies like Viacom.

The flurry of self-censorship since the Super Bowl - a fairly transparent attempt by the networks to convince Washington that they can be trusted to self-regulate - does raise some First Amendment concerns. As John Wells, president of the Writer's Guild and executive producer of ER, said last week, such actions could "have a chilling effect on the narrative integrity of adult dramas." But the FCC does not regulate cable, so HBO and the other channels can continue to do adult content no matter what happens in the hearings.

Furthermore, at this point, such First Amendment concerns are nothing compared to the rule changes championed by Powell last year that would allow a company to own TV stations that reach 45 percent of the households in the United States (up from 35 percent). The protests to that FCC action were so widespread that Congress responded with legislation capping ownership at 39 percent.

The battle continues, but Powell's credibility and image have been bloodied, and experts say his outrage over Jackson's bare breast is an attempt to shift the focus of the debate.

"Michael Powell got himself in a lot of trouble over the ownership rules, and this is him trying to fight his way out," Gomery said. "This is his chance to stand up before Congress and be an American and be for decency and all that."

"The biggest indecency is the FCC itself," said Mark D. Harmon, who teaches broadcast history in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. "For the FCC to waste its time over a few words and images when it is un-regulating oligopolies left and right is pure political theater. Our public policy should be focused on ownership rules. Instead, we get grand theater."

C-SPAN3 will broadcast the House hearing on "Broadcast Decency" starting at 10:30 a.m. today. The Senate hearing, which begins at 9:30 a.m., will not be televised.

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