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FCC Pushes Economic Answer To Indecency

Having agreed to put in its two cents on indecency Wednesday, the FCC didn't even come up with a Penny. Penny Nance, that is.

After FCC Chairman Kevin Martin pled a schedule conflict, according to a source familiar with the speaker arrangements, Nance, the FCC's special advisor on stategic planning and policy, and a veteran anti-indecency activist, agreed to share the dais with Jack Valenti, the former Motion Picture Association of America president who is spearheading the broadcast and cable industry's self-regulatory efforts.

Nance did not make an appearance, however, citing a family emergency, according to sponsor The Cato Institute,

FCC Chief Economist Leslie Marx filled in, though she had to leave early and would take no questions. Billed as a champion fencer, she failed to score many points with an audience looking for a First Amendment debate or with journalists wanting to ask questions about the FCC's indecency policy.

Turns out there were a lot of start and stops in Cato's attempt to get FCC participation, according to Roger Pilon, VP, legal affairs for the Cato Institute and director of its Center for Constitutional Studies, who said it took more than two months, scores of e-mails, and even a push from the White House to get the commission to schedule the event, with Nance canceling an hour before it was to start. "Among the least of the virtues of the Federal Communications Commission's skills is communications," said an obviously frustrated Pilon.

While Valenti wanted to talk about the First Amendment and the FCC's vague and fuzzy standards of indecency enforcement, Marx spent her time pitching an economic model--a la carte and cable tiers--as the answer to giving parents' more control over TV programming.

She said the FCC agreed with Valenti that parents should have total control over TV programming, then said that could be accomplished, at least on the cable side--she did not address broadcasting at all--via family tiers or a la carte cable offerings. She cited examples from Canada, Hong Kong, and the UK where such systems were in place.

Valenti thanked her for the tour of the United Nations, but said she was not explaining the FCC's rationale for its recent indecency findings on profanity or whether she thought consumers wanted the government to tell them what they can watch, citing surveys that suggest they overwhelmingly did not.

Valenti is heading up a $300 million education campaign to let parents in on the power they already have through the ratings, V-chip, and cable and satellite blocking technologies."

Squaring off against Valenti is an intimidating prospect, but Marx's a la carte drumbeat, echoing Martin's championing of a la carte, left a number of disappointed audience members who had been looking for some First Amendment fireworks.

The industry information campaign was partly the result of prompting by the co-chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee. Chairman Senator Stevens has said he wanted to give that self-regulatory effort, as well as the family tiers created by some cable companies, a chance to work before moving on any Senate indecency legislation. Valenti said the Senators had not given him any timetable for results before they would move such legislation.

He did say the campaign will launch in June, with a review in nine months and then nine months after that so gauge how "effective or ineffective" it has been.

Valenti said there ought to be a monument erected to Brent Bozell, head of the Parents Television Council, for having convinced the FCC in 2004 to treat identical form-letter complaints about the same show as individual complaints. and thus boosting the impact of its campaigns.