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Redstone to Regulators: Stay Out of Our Homes

According to an advance copy of a speech, Sumner Redstone thinks media companies are living in fear and their programs are under assault by people who may not have watched them, and by regulators who dictate business models "that will do more harm than good."

That was the message being brought to Washington Monday by Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, recipient of The Media Institutes Freedom of Speech award. According to the copy of his speech to the Friends & Benefactors Banquet, Redstone wants them to know that the fear of an FCC content crackdown is taking its toll in self-censorship.

He points to several examples, including 11% of CBS affiliates pre-empting or moving the 9/11 documentary re-airing because it had some unbleeped profanities.

Redstone evokes Franklin Roosevelt's delineation of the country's four bedrock freedoms, tying freedom of speech to the freedom from fear," suggesting that censorship threatens to harm both.

Redstone wants regulators to help spread the word about the content-control power viewers already have, but to "stay out of their homes." Scheduled to be in the audience was one of those regulators, Republican Robert McDowell, who was slated to give the keynote speech. McDowell has yet to weigh in on any proposed indecency fines.

CBS is currently fighting its $525,000 Janet Jackson fine and a whopping $3 million-plus proposed fine on CBS stations for an episode of Without a Trace. It is also among those challenging four profanity rulings that the FCC is currently reconsidering.

"Unfortunately,' said Redstone, "we find ourselves in a a world where, increasingly and alarmingly, a couple thousand form complaints from people condemning shows that they have never watched can result in an indecency fine 10 times higher that it was a year ago."

The FCC a couple of years ago changed the way it counts e-mailed complaints at the urging of groups like the Parents Television Council, counting form complaints about the same show from different people as different complaints rather than a single complaint. Such complaints can number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, though it takes only a single complaint to trigger an inquiry after which the issue is not how many people complained but whether or not it meets the FCC standard for indecency.

Congress, at the commission's urging, also recently boosted the commission's indecency fines by tenfold to a maximum of $325,000 per violation. And the FCC under chairmen Michael Powell and his successor, Kevin Martin, has begun tougher enforcement of profanity. Redstone says he is not apologizing for being in business to make a profit, calling intellectual property "one of the cornerstones of our nation's economy." But he said that the media's economic engine is fueled by creativity and the First Amendment protections that allow it to flourish. The benefactors, he says, are not just media companies and their investors, but society in general.

"It is only when you remove the fear-inducing shackled of censorship," he said, "that you unleash the imagination."

Redstone defends his networks and shows that have come under attack from some content critics--though he avows he "never did get Beavis & Butthead," and conceded that "not every CBS show is on my must-watch list."

He gives a shout-out to MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1 and Comedy Central, saying they have, "paved the way to a more global marketplace of ideas.'" And he said he was proud that the CSI franchise had "done more to promote forensic science education than all the grassroots efforts combined."

Quoting former Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who, he pointed out, was also chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Redstone says that, "the price of freedom of religion,or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with a good deal of rubbish."

But, likely to insure that reporters don't  immediately reach for their Blackberries, he adds: "As a responsible media executive, and more importantly a parent and grandparent, I have no intention of pushing rubbish, but I defend others freedom to create what some, including me, might not like."

The business model that does work, Redstone suggests, is that "if the public is not happy with a particular program, then they won't watch and it will go off the air." Government censorship, he said, is "particularly pernicious," calling it a threat to the the principles on which that government was founded.

"Give the government the tools to punish those it doesn't like, or silence what it doesn't want to hear, and you undermine Democracy," he said. "give those people the tools to choose what they see and hear, and you enhance Democracy."

Redstone planned to close his speech with a pitch for the Democracy-enhancing industry effort to encourage parental responsibility and use of the V-Chip/ratings system.

"Arm parents with the ability to block content they don't want their children to see," he said, "as we in the industry have done and will continue to do, but stay out of their homes."

The Media Institute is a Washington-based First Amendment think tank funded by some of the major media companies. The Oct. 16 banquet kicks off its week-long celebration of Freedom of Speech.

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.