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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Saturday, March 06, 2004

 

Regarding the FCC: On the other hand
A couple weeks ago, I defended the FCC's right to monitor broadcast television and cable. I stand by that assertion. But I've since learned two things that make the situation a little more, shall we say, nuanced.

This article from the Chicago Tribune brings up these two issues (you have to register to get in, for which I apologize). On one hand, I learned that my argument for letting the FCC do it's thing is apparently outdated:
Legal experts and industry insiders say that the realities of the digital age have rendered obsolete the justifications for treating television differently than any other medium -- there is after all, no Federal Print Commission thumbing through men's magazines, looking for indecency, and such a law would be unconstitutional on the face of it. The reason the FCC has been granted an enormous and unique exception to 1st Amendment concerns with respect to broadcasters is a legal doctrine called "spectrum scarcity."

"Initially, the only basis for treating television differently was that more people wanted to speak on the `public's airwaves' than there was room for," said Floyd Abrams, a 1st Amendment attorney who has represented broadcasters in the past. "So we had the government involved to decide who could speak, meaning who could have a license. And that was the entering wedge which allowed the Congress to establish the FCC, and to have the FCC start to apply very broad and loose notions of what is and what is not in the public interest."

Outdated thinking

But in a world in which more than 80 percent of the nation gets television through cable or direct broadcast satellite systems, which offer hundreds of channels, including cable access channels open to the public, the notion of more voices than channelsseems woefully outdated. And the other legal argument supporting indecency regulation, articulated by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1978 "seven dirty words" case, is that the broadcast medium is so "pervasive" and difficult to avoid that the public's interest in decency trumps the 1st Amendment. But, to judge by viewership, cable has become just as pervasive as broadcast television. On average, more people watched cable last year.

"In the old days of the pervasiveness of the broadcast signal into the home, content regulation was treated different for broadcasters," the lobbyist said. "But now that you have 85 percent of the country that gets cable and satellite combined, you no longer can make that argument."
Leave it to the Supreme Court to scew up a perfectly valid argument. I think they made the right decision, but in getting there they decided to trample on the 1st amendment, rather than bypass it. What the heck? Thanks a lot, guys. The way things are set up now is hardly 'outdated.' The broadcast spectrum is still limited, there are still more people who want to use the public's airwaves (and I refuse to scare quote that) than there is room for them all, and if we opened it up for everyone, there would still be chaos. The old argument (as is often the case) is just fine. The new one, however, is ridiculous. The other thing I learned is that some people are using that ridiculous argument in favor of regulating satellite and cable TV:
"I think eventually the difference between broadcast and cable must crumble," Abrams said, describing the current regulatory scheme as a "historical anomaly." "From a practical point of view, when the channels are right next to each other, and indeed, some of the same entities own both -- and when spectrum scarcity is no longer a viable justification for differential treatment -- it becomes increasingly hard to justify different treatment."

Given the furor over the Super Bowl -- as well as myriad other enormously popular results of the regulation of broadcast television, such as required programming for children -- it is unlikely that Congress will attempt to rectify the situation by deregulating broadcast anytime soon. And complicating the issue is, as Abrams said, all the major broadcast networks, or their parent companies, have significant cable holdings as well. So while the network executives may feel unfairly singled out for regulation, their colleagues on the cable side, and their bosses, might disagree. But the notion of applying some standards to the cable operators is floating around Washington.

"I've heard members on both sides mention it," the lobbyist said. "I don't know how deep the feeling is, but once it starts getting into the general lexicon, it starts building up its own head of steam."

At a House telecommunications subcommittee hearing the week before the Super Bowl, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), expressed frustration at the increasing coarseness over the airwaves and singled out cable and satellite channels as the main culprit.

"[Stepping up FCC enforcement] certainly takes care of maybe the first six channels on my TV. What happens on the other 400?" Walden asked. "I think that's where the worst abuses are, and none of that is regulated."
No duh! That's because it's private studios filming private stuff, then shipping them over private wires and satellites into private TV's. That's a far cry from shipping them over limited airwaves licensed to them by the public. I'm all for clamping down on those who use my airwaves for smut. But if I'm worried about anything else, I should take it up with them in the marketplace, not the town hall.

And did anyone else catch the irony in that second to last paragraph? Check it out again:
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), expressed frustration at the increasing coarseness over the airwaves and singled out cable and satellite channels as the main culprit.
That's right! Cable and satellite channels don't use the airwaves!

If distinctions are getting blurred, that does not give anyone the right to claim they don't exist. Broadcast and cable are two different animals altogether, and until one destroys the other (not happening any time soon, unless the broadcast lobbyists convince the government to trample on the 1st amendment some more), we'll have them both with us for quite some time.

As a final note, please take notice of who it is that wants cable regulated. It's not the Focus on the Family types. It's broadcast lobbyists who want to shackle their competition just because they've found a way to get their images to the viewer without using anything the public owns. This isn't about decency, this is about competition, and the government should step back and let the kids fight it out on their own. Keep the rules of the game in play, but don't change them to make things "fair."
Agree, disagree, have more information on the topic? Please, feel free to leave a comment. No profanity!
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