Assume the Position

These are red-letter days for foes of four-letter words. Three TV network chiefs and Clear Channel's president told Washington more of what it wanted to hear, outlining plans for greater self-regulation and agreeing with proposed new laws restricting indecency. Cable was also squarely in D.C.'s indecency sites.

The doings in Congress came on the heels of Infinity's and Clear Channel's rapid adoption of zero-tolerance policies for indecency on their radio stations, including firing any violators. Those moves clearly buoyed the politicos, who took turns taking credit.

At the House Telecommunications Subcommittee's third hearing on the subject, legislators praised the new time-delay broadcast policies, talent firings, and other industry efforts since the last hearing.

Weirdly enough, many in the industry praised the clampdowns, too, as if thankful the government had alerted them to what was on their own air.

Citing Infinity, an obviously pleased Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said, "They heard us loud and clear."

An apologetic Clear Channel President John Hogan responded: "We have changed our tune. We have heard you, the FCC, and our listeners." That new tune includes making all Clear Channel jocks pay a portion of any future indecency fines.

Next stop on the indecency road show is the final draft of Upton's bill, tentatively scheduled this Wednesday.

Senior Democrat John Dingell of Michigan said Congress must keep up the pressure: "Deathbed conversions don't usually last long enough to pay the doctor bills."

Following TV's lead, Clear Channel is working on a delay of up to five minutes, a first for radio, Hogan said. Upton described it as "censoring on the fly," which he likes.

Clear Channel pulled the plug on The Howard Stern Show
last week and fired its own syndicated Bubba the Love Sponge from WXTB(FM) Tampa, Fla. The chain came in for particular praise, something new for Clear Channel. The owner of 1,200 stations is often the poster child for big media's ills.

One congressman noted that Infinity Broadcasting, which syndicates Stern, had not taken a similar step. "We'll have to flag that," said Oregon Republican Greg Walden, a broadcaster himself. Stern, meanwhile, threatened to quit.

Not so happy was AFTRA, which last week accused big media companies of trying to make the jocks take the fall for fines.

The recent uproar over CBS's Super Bowl Janet Jackson incident—just month ago—was rarely mentioned, but there was increasing focus on cracking down on cable and satellite programs.

Newly minted Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said pay TV might be the subject of a separate bill.

"For most viewers, there is no meaningful difference between a broadcast station and a cable channel," said NBC Research and Media Development President Alan Wurtzel, a point seconded by other broadcasters.

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz vowed cable would fight against being drawn in.

Pax TV Chairman Bud Paxson leveled the biggest artillery at cable and satellite, all but calling them pornographers and saying the FCC should already be regulating them just as they do broadcasters. If they got rid of the porn, he said, there would be plenty of room for the digital multicast channels.

"How to fix this pervasive evil? Empower the FCC, enact legislation; have an amendment to the Constitution if necessary," Paxson suggested. "You are the lawmakers. You can do it."

Dietz called Paxson's pitch nothing more than a "bad attempt" to hitch the digital must-carry issue to indecency.

Upton and others have suggested that there are constitutional problems with trying to apply indecency standards to cable and satellite. Paxson disagreed, saying a law firm is currently working on a legal underpinning for such indecency regs.

Group owner Harry Pappas said the FCC needs to reaffirm the right of affiliates to reject indecent programming.

ABC-TV President Alex Wallau countered that his network had never gotten an individual complaint about that process.

Said Pappas, "We've complained."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.