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Regulatory Violence

Ben Grossman, my colleague here at B&C, has a theory about why The View kicked Rosie O'Donnell to the curb. Given the FCC's just issued report on violent content, he says, ABC simply wanted to avoid the inevitable moment when O'Donnell breaks lithe View panelist Elisabeth Hasselbeck in half.

Funny, but not altogether untrue. I'm not suggesting that O'Donnell is capable of physical violence. But, given Rosie's capacity for verbal assault, if anyone thinks The View's inability to cut a deal with her isn't about the current climate of fear in the media industry, think again.

It's no mere coincidence that ABC booted Rosie, MSNBC and CBS tossed Don Imus, and the FCC finally issued its indictment—I mean, report—on TV violence (see p. 10) in the span of a few weeks.

You don't have to read between the lines in an environment where Washington machers on both sides of the aisle are already on the attack on multiple fronts. With the 2008 race for the White House already in full swing, expect the TV industry to reprise its traditional role as the election-year heavy: the source of so many of society's woes.

In this climate, nobody wants to do anything too risky content-wise lest it piss off somebody—left, right or center—with the power to legislate.

The violence report encourages Congress to take action in regulating TV content and offers a glimpse of how the government might use the power to fundamentally alter—some would argue, undermine—the entire industry. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wasted no time in proclaiming that the best way to control content was a system that allowed all to pick and choose what they want to watch.

Indeed, he suggested that Congress might put through legislation to do exactly what most in the cable industry fear: mandate à la carte service.

It's rarely a good thing when the government legislates what content should or shouldn't be or how it should be distributed. When lawmakers usurp the role of the marketplace and decide what's profane, too violent or too sexy, it's simply bad policy.

Now is the time to head off what's being proposed in Washington. Part of the job is showing the courage to fight the First Amendment fight. But if we want to thwart such action, whether it's mandated à la carte pricing or outright censorship, all of us in the industry must do a better job of acting through the marketplace.

In this respect, it may be time for the cable industry to stop being so knee-jerk in its opposition to à la carte and come up with an approach that can work. No less a cable visionary than Cablevision's Chuck Dolan thinks it's possible.

The satellite and telco competitors should do likewise. Actually, they should do it first. That way, they'll have a unique selling proposition to offer, one that will only galvanize competition. Someone will figure it out. And when they do, they will empower viewers to vote not only with their remotes but with their wallets. And then Washington will stay out of our business.

Personally, I wouldn't pay a dime for Imus or Rosie (well, maybe a nickel for O'Donnell). But I wouldn't mind spending wisely for what my kids and I see.

What I don't want is for the FCC, Congress or the cable industry making that decision for me.

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