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Ed Markey on TV Violence, Media Ownership and the Digital Transition

Since January, Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has directed business as chairman of the powerful House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, after one-dozen years of watching Republicans control the gavel and much of the debate.

A veteran of TV regulation and deregulation, Markey is most concerned now with DTV's D-Day, when the nation switches from analog to digital TV -- a deadline that's now just 18 months away. Worried that many Americans will be left without TV, Markey pledges tight oversight of the switch.

That means working doggedly with the industry to educate consumers about Feb. 17, 2009, the date for the turn-off of analog TV service. His top worry: that educating viewers about the switch will cost more than the $7 million the government has so far ponied up.

That's hardly the only open file on what is an ambitious agenda. Markey also wants media companies to put their junk-food ads on a stricter diet where kids are concerned. Otherwise, he will push the Federal Communications Commission to do it for them.

The chairman says he still prefers program-content ratings and the V-chip -- which he helped to create -- to government regulation of media content, though he is open to other suggestions. He also wants the government to look into broadcasters' role in the dissemination of hate speech.

However, Markey -- who once called the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine the “linchpin” of broadcasters' public-interest obligations -- says reviving the doctring is not currently on his radar screen.

The ever-competitive 61-year-old Markey is currently nursing a ruptured achilles tendon suffered in a game of basketball “with 20-somethings.” But that hardly stopped him from taking the time before the August break to talk with B&C's John Eggerton about TV violence, private equity and his nightmare scenario of what might happen on TV's D-Day.

Broadcasters say they are going to start their DTV public-service-announcement campaign in December. Is that soon enough for you?

The sooner the PSA campaign begins, the better it will be. November is better than December; October is better than November. There are a lot of people who just don't know that this TV typhoon is going to hit their living room.

Do you think the Feb. 17, 2009, date is going to hold?

Yes, the date is not going to move. We will make it work because there are now many things contingent on it, including the auction of the spectrum and the plans the winners of the auction are going to make for the use of that spectrum. That date is a date that should not slip.

Sanford Bernstein points out that $99 million was spent to promote The Swiffer in 2005 and, so far, it looks like there is about $7 million in government money to promote the DTV switch. Is that enough?

I don't think that enough money has been put up for public education. I argued vociferously and still do today that more money has to be expended. One-third of all Hispanic families do not have satellite or cable, so they are going to be dependent on their analog-TV sets.

Is there anything that you can do?

I am now working with the broadcasters and with the TV-set manufacturers, the cable and satellite industries to educate people. But if necessary, I will recommend that more money be spent.

What is your DTV nightmare scenario?

It is the same thing that happened in November of 1968, when the Oakland Raiders were [losing to] the New York Jets and Daryle Lamonica was matched up against Joe Namath. And at 7 o'clock, when the game was reaching a climax, NBC switched to the movie Heidi. So many people telephoned NBC that, pretty much, it created chaos because people had an expectation that their TV would continue to carry this programming. The New York Jets [lost], and they had to run it as a scroll across the bottom of the movie.

That kind of a scenario could unfold if the analog signal is discontinued and millions of Americans don't have a converter box. The biggest concern is that millions of consumers wake up one day to a blank screen. It doesn't matter to them why it is a blank screen, only that it has happened through no fault of their own. They possess an otherwise perfectly good TV set. That is why I will be conducting vigorous oversight of the DTV transition.

What concerns, if any, do you have about private equity's role in media ownership?

Chairman [John] Dingell [D-Mich.] and I are raising questions we feel have to be answered about ownership attribution and the traditional public-interest responsibilities of broadcasters as [they are] now affected by this new phenomenon. The goal is to learn what this portends for the future of broadcasting. We are asking the questions now rather than coming back in five or 10 years and asking: “How did this ever happen?”

Are broadcast-media-ownership limits yesterday's battle given the rise of alternative media, particularly the Web?

No. I think media-ownership issues are still very relevant today. Let's say in Providence, R.I., one company owns the only newspaper in town, the two biggest TV stations, five radio stations and the cable system. That is a very serious question that has not been reduced in its importance because of the advent of Webcasting or Web advertising. There still is a significant impact on local public issues that is still relevant and, as a result, media-ownership issues remain relevant.

Should the FCC be empowered to regulate violence?

I am the author in the 1996 Telecom Act of the V-chip. My argument at the time was that parents should be given the tools they need in order to pick just the right level of violence, sex and language that their children should be exposed to depending upon their age. That is, it should be not Big Brother, but Big Mother and Big Father who are making the decisions. That has always been my view on the issue. I am willing to listen to other alternative methods of accomplishing the goal, but that has always been my traditional approach.

Are the ratings effective or do they need tweaking?

The evidence is that parents who have small children and know about the V-chip use it at relatively high levels and like it. Obviously, most families aren't in that situation, meaning that they don't have small children. So it's not something that every person is going to be talking about because it would never occur to them to use a V-chip in 85% or 90% of all homes. So it's in that subset of homes that, among the parents who know about it, there is a very high degree of satisfaction.

In your call for a study of hate crimes by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, you said you were interested in the use of broadcast facilities to “convey messages of bigotry or hatred.”

My goal is to update the information which the Congress and the FCC and the American public have about the level of hate speech in the media just so there can be an appreciation for the growing phenomenon. Our goal was to put a spotlight on it. We're not making specific recommendations as to how to deal with it, but I think it is an important phenomenon for us as a society to understand.

Can you cite any specific instances?

I don't have a specific instance. I had asked the NTIA to do this for me in 1993. And, obviously, I am back as chairman after 12 years of being out, so it is just something that I had an interest in then. I think it is a very important issue, so I made the request on that basis.

There has been some talk, at least on the Senate side, of reimposing the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air both sides of issues of pubic importance. Would you support that?

You are the first reporter to ask me about it. I don't have any plans. There is no bill and no hearing planned. No member has actually mentioned the issue to me, the chairman of the subcommittee, or even uttered the phrase.

You have asked media companies to do more to rein in their junk-food marketing to kids. What does the government-industry task force need to show to Congress in its planned September report to avoid legislation or a push for regulation?

I want the media companies to step up to the plate the same way these food companies are so that there is a commitment made by Viacom and Time Warner to make sure that children are not exposed to excessive junk-food advertising. I am the author of the 1990 Children's Television Act, and these ads clearly counteract the intent of that law, which is to have educational and informational programming made available to children, which is obviously undermined if junk-food ads predominate.

If media companies don't step up to that smaller-portioned, lower-calorie plate, is the next step yours or the FCC's?

Obviously I am still holding [judgment] in terms of my recommendations for action by the FCC or the Federal Trade Commission, but I want a very strong standard. I don't want this to be something that just has a passing moment of public attention and then is lost. I think there is a real opportunity here and I prepared to make a recommendation to the FCC that they should take action based on the Children's Television Act if the media companies aren't willing to do so voluntarily.

Does the FCC need additional authority?

I think that under the act, the commission already has the authority to act.

So the FCC could rule that no kids' show with a fast-food ad could gain its educational/informational (E/I) stamp of approval?

That would fall within the penumbra of the act's intent so that the good programming is not undermined by the bad junk-food commercials. The act limits overall commercial time on kids' shows. If a show is telling a kid to eat an apple and exercise and then the ads promote junk food, it undermines the intent of the law.

Are you concerned that the FCC's decision to put open-access conditions on the spectrum could discourage bidding and lower the auction revenue (which is being used to fund the DTV converter-box program)?

I'm chairman of the Telecommunications Committee, not the Budget Committee. My goal is good, long-term telecommunications policy for our country. When I began on the committee 31 years ago, there was one phone company. People for the most part still had black rotary-dial phones. My goal has been to create opportunities for new technologies to be deployed that ultimately provide far greater benefits to the American people than any marginal increase in revenues derived from a short-term auction. The goal has to be to provide tens of millions of Americans with devices that are less expensive, more sophisticated and not controlled by the agenda of just one company.

What has been your biggest triumph in terms of media policy, and your biggest disappointment?

The 1996 Telecom Act was 10 bills in one. There were so many good things in that bill -- the V-chip, competition to incumbent cable and telephone companies. The success of my amendment to limit ownership rules -- I would have to say that was, as I look back, a high-water mark for introducing a lot of new concepts into American telecommunications policy. Although, my 1992 Cable Act was the only veto override among the 35 bills President George Bush vetoed. So, I am very proud of that. That also created the 18-inch dish, which has revolutionized media. My greatest disappointment? No one has ever asked me that question before. I would say it was watching the [Michael] Powell FCC roll back already demonstrated successful, pro-competitive telecommunications policies. I think the country lost a lot when the Powell commission went down that path.