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Tell the People

It is likely that, within the next two weeks, Congress is going pass a Senate bill that will raise the FCC's indecency fines to a maximum of $325,000 a pop. That is a staggering figure, especially because we're sure most of the nation is not aware of the bill's ramifications.

It means, for example, that the next time the storyline for Without a Trace acknowledges that young people have sex lives, the fine could be $30 million-plus. That would make the already onerous $3 million FCC-proposed fine seem paltry by comparison.

But almost nobody is standing in the way of the Senate bill, mostly because various factions that would otherwise howl about indecency laws fear an even tougher House version. The National Association of Broadcasters is not raising its voice. Nor are any of the guilds. These days, silence is deafening and dangerous.

What's an industry to do? Fight back, that's what. The networks are suing over FCC-proposed fines over profanity, which we applaud. But the wheels of justice grind slow. Why aren't broadcasters and networks using their most powerful tool? Advertising!

It is true that the television industry is mounting a $300 million campaign to educate parents about exercising their control over TV, and urging them to use the V-chip and other blocking devices. But that campaign should also include forceful advertising that reminds viewers that they also control Congress. Americans need to understand just how far this ludicrous indecency crackdown has gone.

A vocal minority has made its feelings clear, mainly by blasting the FCC with prefab complaints handcrafted by the Parents Television Council (PTC). Now it's time for other viewers to stand up and be counted, to let the government know that neither the PTC nor the American Family Association speaks for them. The creative unions, the networks and producers should use the airwaves to awaken the new majority who have been lulled into a dangerous silence.

Broadcasters have already censored themselves to avoid the FCC's indecency crackdown. The threat of eight-figure fines won't make them any more inclined to push the envelope. But every timid reaction drives more viewers to seek alternatives.

It is in the country's and the networks' best interest to encourage viewers to stand up for the programming they like and watch.

Slowly, Hollywood has started to stand up for itself. That includes, notably, Martin Scorsese's defense of his PBS documentary, The Blues, which the FCC has proposed fining thousands of dollars because of its use of some cuss words.

The Center for Creative Voices in Media, which includes Hollywood personalities Steven Bochco, Tom Fontana, Warren Beatty and Blake Edwards, among others, has also let its voice be heard over FCC-proposed fines. “These commission decisions put creative, challenging, controversial, non-homogenized broadcast-television programming at risk, harming not only media artists but the American public,” says Center Executive Director Jonathan Rintels.

“The consistent inconsistency of the FCC decisions and the 'chilling effect' they place on free speech,” Rintels says, “should concern and give pause to legislators now considering increasing these chilling FCC fines tenfold or more and extending those fines to creative artists. Such legislation will chill even more speech that is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment.”

That is the information that programmers should be putting on the air. Defending freedom of speech is the ultimate public-service announcement. Broadcasters must rise up before it's too late.