Viewer’s Tastes Must Be Considered

Posted March 26, 2004 at 12:05pm

The infamous Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show has drawn unprecedented attention to the question of indecent material being broadcast over the airwaves. The ensuing discussion among the American public has varied from region to region, from state to state and from town to town. Some were deeply offended by the sexual dancing and the brief nudity that occurred. Others found it relatively mild.

The disparity of opinions across the country provides evidence that indecency cannot be defined without considering the viewer’s

or listener’s opinions and tastes. Indeed, the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of indecency reads in part, “language or material that … depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” (Emphasis added.) So answering the question of what constitutes indecency, by the FCC’s own definition, necessitates some understanding of a community’s standards and mores.

It is remarkable then, particularly considering FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s vehement protestations against broadcast indecency, that the commission is working steadily toward making programming decision-makers more removed from and less accountable to the communities.

On June 2, 2003, the FCC inexplicably moved to allow greater media consolidation. Among the changes was a provision that would raise the proportion of American households that one company’s television stations can reach from 35 percent to 45 percent. Thus a single corporation could control broadcasters that reach almost half of U.S. homes. The Senate voted to reverse this national ownership cap and the House was poised to do the same. But a hoax masquerading as a compromise set the cap at 39 percent. Worse, loopholes in the “compromise” legislation will allow media conglomerates to easily violate the cap without penalty. This new law ensures that the chasm between a station’s viewers and the people who determine what they see will grow wider.

Congress has failed to prevent the FCC’s other rule changes from taking effect, although a court stay is currently in place. If these new rules are implemented, one company could own three television stations, eight radio stations, the only daily newspaper and the monopoly cable system in the same local market. If allowing multinational conglomerates to buy up our local TV stations is bad, it will only be worse if the same company can completely dominate the local market.

These rule changes are just the latest move in the FCC’s effort to shift control of the airwaves from the public to media conglomerates. Beginning with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine under the Reagan administration, the commission has largely ignored the principle that the public interest should be paramount in any decisions about the use of the broadcast spectrum. The result is that an increasing number of Americans are finding fewer sources of news and entertainment, as corporations consolidate local radio and television stations and daily newspapers.

According to Consumers Union, one-third of the nation’s independent TV station owners have vanished in the last 27 years. Cable networks offer an alternative to network news, but the networks’ nightly news programs attract eight times as many viewers as the cable programming. Since 1975, two-thirds of America’s independent newspaper owners have disappeared, and nearly three-quarters of America’s media markets have only one local daily newspaper. Half the time Americans spend on the Internet is on Web sites controlled by just four companies, led by AOL Time Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable company. National newspapers and companies that dominate the cable and network TV industries manage the content on the most popular news Web sites.

It cannot be denied that the number of complaints about broadcast indecency has risen commensurately with this increase in media consolidation. A study of the connection between the two has not yet been undertaken, but it stands to reason that the loss of independence among broadcast stations would result in more indecency complaints. In today’s television marketplace a half dozen conglomerates control trend-setting programs, advertising rates and major market dynamics. Their decisions are built around selling ads targeted at the cash-rich 18- to 34-year-old demographic. This causes broadcasters to be ignorant of the wants and needs of consumers and citizens across other sectors of the population, notably children and families. We get similar content from all of our broadcasters, who mimic each other’s style and form, while pushing the envelope on sex and violence to maximize audience share. When this inevitably results in dissatisfaction in some communities, corporate control of local stations prevents residents from asserting themselves effectively.

Deference to the prevalent views of individual communities cuts both ways. Just as a multinational corporation should not force on a community material its residents find objectionable, neither should it ban this same material from a community that finds it acceptable. On both counts, local input is a prerequisite for making responsible programming decisions.

There is perhaps no other issue as central to the health of our democracy than the just governance of the media system. The public deserves accountable media owners and meaningful, mainstream programming alternatives to ensure localism and diversity. Increasing the fines for multibillion-dollar media conglomerates will treat the symptom, but not the root cause of indecency complaints.

Broadcasting is a business and it is natural that the bottom line would be a business’ primary motivation. But broadcasters are different from other businesses in that they have been given the right to use the spectrum, a limited resource that is owned by all of us. Undue concentration raises the barriers to market entry, excluding independent and alternative programming in order to further centralize content decision-making and revenue intake. By structuring the media system to increase diversity and local ownership, the marketplace would naturally correct its current problems and offer consumers and citizens a more representative set of news and entertainment choices. Unfortunately, the FCC continues to move in the opposite direction.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee.