Media Execs Get Earful on Lyrics at House Subcommittee Hearing

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) took aim at BET in a hearing Tuesday and said media companies needed to reassess what they choose to market and air.

Saying that at its launching, BET was to have been a sophisticated channel, featuring "high-minded fare" characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance, it has instead chosen to serve the "lowest common denominator," featuring "cheap, tawdry" music videos and other "questionable programming."

He said he was pleased to read of some new programming initiatives at the channel, but it had a long way to go.

That broadside came at a hearing on degrading images in the media, held Tuesday in the House Energy & Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, which is chaired by Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush.

Although Rush cautioned members at one point that TV was properly the jurisdiction of Markey's Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, rather than his committee, which was focusing on the sale and transport of music, videos and games, TV came up as a topic of conversation, including from Markey himself.

Philippe Dauman, president of Viacom, was on hand for Markey's criticism of his channel.

He gave a shout-out to Debra Lee, chairman of BET, as one of the most experienced executives in the business. He also said in his opening statement (questioning had not begun at press time) that the company takes its responsibility to both its artists and the public seriously.

But the basic responsibility, he added, was to entertain, since failing that, Viacom would have no business. He also talked of the responsibility to speak authentically to its audience, which was an eclectic mix of Gen-Xers, Boomers, conservatives and every race and ethnicity.

Viacom spends a lot of time researching what audiences want, he said, pointing out that on MTV, shows about juvenile delinquents air side-by-side with ones about affluent Los Angeles teens, or gospel on BET sharing the channel with a series about upper-middle-class African-American kids.

He also plugged a BET show, debuting Tuesday night, which looks at the hip-hop controversy -- a main topic of the hearing.

Dauman said Viacom does not create its videos; each is vetted by a diverse group of people before it airs. Some are edited, he said, some rejected, and they are rated so that parents can block them or "simply turn off the TV."

Most of the members of the committee said they were looking for constructive dialog and talked of their respect for the First Amendment. Rush said it was not a "head-hunting" expedition. But along with those industry witnesses who pointed out that Elvis and The Beatles had been branded "devil music" were those, like Republican Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania, who invoked lead-painted toys, cigarette manufacturers and Columbine in his assessment of the situation.

Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Warner Music Group, pointed out that his company had a responsibility to its artists and to creative works that are often "intentionally controversial to shed light on needed changes" to society. Those artists, he added, are sometimes treated as part of the problem themselves.

He said his company takes numerous steps to review content, label it, impress on artists the impact their music can have and provide edited versions of explicit songs to radio and TV outlets. But he added that while some creative expression can be offensive, sensibilities are individual by "their very nature," and that "what is offensive to some is important and necessary to others."

Markey defended artists who offend in the name of creative expression, who draw from their experiences in their own neighborhoods to express what it is like to be human in whatever circumstances they find themselves in. He said some of that art should be celebrated and revered even if it might make some people uncomfortable.

But he also said that popular mass-media puts those artists on steroids and that some of the art chosen by large companies to deliver back to those neighborhoods makes respectable actions no community would endorse.

Markey said he hoped media companies would dramatically reassess their reasons for what they choose to air and market.

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.