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FCC to Congress: Take Action on Violence

Concluding that there is strong evidence that violent media produce aggressive kids, a unanimous FCC last week gave Congress the road map for regulating TV violence, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) says he is ready to use it.

In a report requested four years ago, the commission, led by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, concludes that, unless the industry cleans up its act, Congress should take action on TV violence. It recommends several approaches, with a big plug for Martin's key issue, persuading or forcing cable to offer its channels à la carte.

Now it is up to legislators to take the next step. Rockefeller, a vocal critic of media violence, praised the report and said he will review it and amend his bill if necessary. Backed by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Rockefeller plans to reintroduce a bill that would give the FCC the ability to regulate TV violence.

The report casts doubt on the V-chip/ratings system. The FCC said bluntly that channel-blocking technologies, the V-chip and ratings are not sufficient tools to address the violence issue. “Although the V-chip and TV-ratings system appear useful in the abstract,” the report says, “they are not effective at protecting children from excessively violent television programming.”

Jim Dyke, who heads TV Watch, the media-industry–backed V-chip/ratings advocacy group, disagrees: “There is no doubt that parents who have used the V-chip and satellite and cable controls find them useful. Parents who are aware of the ratings have found them useful. There seems to be a clear rejection of the overwhelming majority of American opinion in favor of a well-organized minority that has pressured the FCC to make TV consistent with what they think is appropriate.”

In criticizing the chip, ratings and content controls, the FCC echoed its defense of proposed indecency fines, which labeled the V-chip/ratings system as fraught with problems. Nonetheless, the commission said, Congress might want to step in to impose its own mandatory ratings system that would “address the shortcomings of the current system.”

The FCC recommends that Congress rewrite the definition of indecency to include violence. The report does not define it, which does not make Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein happy. “We totally punted,” he said.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said, “As our experience with the indecency laws has shown, enforcement of such regulations involves the difficult task of defining the inappropriate content and then applying that definition in the context of specific programming.”

The FCC's inability to provide that regulatory certainty on indecency has landed its profanity and Janet Jackson decisions in federal court, a prospect McDowell expects could be the fate of any violence regs. “Having a new statutory regime regulating television violence overturned by the courts on constitutional grounds,” he says, “would only undermine the very crusade against television violence that any prospective legislation may intend to address.”

Martin acknowledged to reporters that any new regulations would likely wind up in court, but he added that shouldn't discourage the government from trying to do something about the problem.

Asked whether an easy, well-publicized, accurate blocking/ratings system wasn't the most narrowly tailored means of protecting children, Martin said, “No. The least restrictive means would be allowing people to pick and choose the channels they want. à la carte would be the least restrictive means.”

There was a similar push to crack down on media violence after Columbine—and the Virginia Tech shootings could provide a similar spur—but no bill was passed.

Rockefeller's bill did not survive in the last Congress. But this year, there are presidential candidates with violence on their minds. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), whose bill raising FCC indecency fines did pass, is also concerned about media violence. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) made it an issue in her 2000 Senate campaign.

Patti Miller, VP of kids advocacy group Children Now, welcomes the campaign against TV violence. But she still believes the V-chip has possibilities.

So will the industry self-regulate? Jonathan Rintels, president of Center for Creative Voices in Media, says that will depend on what Congress does. “As the FCC said, this is the beginning of a dialog. The recommendations won't be effective, and the commission completely ignores the most effective means of addressing the issue, educating parents on how to operate the tools they have. The commission doesn't even recommend that to Congress. Instead, it jumps straight to censorship.”

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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.