Will the FCC Press Hollywood?

The Senate Commerce Committee plans to hold confirmation hearings on June 16 for Julius Genachowski, President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission. He is not a controversial figure, in part because he seems like a blank slate. His positions on many regulatory issues are yet to be revealed. But passionate advocates will want answers dragged out of him.


The Obama team is placing its emphasis on the wishes of its liberal base, like expanding access to the Internet and broadband service. But conservatives want senators to press on the fervent desire of Obama's Democratic supporters for a reimposed Fairness Doctrine (or, as  conservatives are warning, a “Censorship Doctrine.”) The White House has suggested the fury is overblown. They remind us that the president has come out against the Fairness Doctrine. But there are many evolving ways to try and intimidate radio stations to alter their content, including initiatives for diversity in broadcast ownership.


Last year, the Obama campaign's Technology page, which reflected Genachowski's role as a technology adviser to the campaign, offered nebulous verbiage that could be interpreted with ominous overtones. “As president, Obama will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum.”


This could be empty campaign blather. Or it could signal a real effort to use “diversity” as a political and legal weapon to crack up the nationally syndicated domains of conservative radio stars.


But what about broadcast indecency? In George W. Bush's second term, FCC chairman Kevin Martin ushered in the most energetic regime of indecency fines (and resulting litigation) in the history of the agency.  And still over 1.2 million complaints remain unresolved. That's one million, two hundred thousand times the FCC has been contacted – and nothing. Will the new FCC chairman be more responsible?


A read of that Obama campaign page is not encouraging: “Obama values our First Amendment freedoms and our right to artistic expression and does not view regulation as the answer to these concerns. An Obama administration will give parents the tools and information they need to control what their children see on television and the Internet in ways fully consistent with the First Amendment.”


That sounds almost exactly like the broadcasters and the cable industry, who want to put all the responsibility and all of the blame for sleazy TV on parents who haven't utilized all the supposed “tools” that have been put in their hands to monitor and block the gunk that Hollywood makes.


Senator Obama spoke out at a Kaiser Foundation forum on November 9, 2005, asking “What do we do when bad television becomes the enemy of good parenting?” He spoke for most Americans when he said, “You can talk to the most liberal Democratic parent and First Amendment absolutist and they will still cringe when they see some of the programming that's on television today.”


If Obama is as smart as the adoring media constantly says he is, then he knows full well that the current V-chip and the self-selected content ratings use to block programming  have been proven to be wildly inaccurate and ineffective.


The closest Obama came to frustrating the TV programmers in this Kaiser address was insisting that the cable companies could develop technology to “make it possible for parents to create their own family tier just by programming their television (to block entire channels, or genres of channels)...There's no reason the industry can't make it as easy to find family-friendly television as it is to program TiVo. But if the industry fails to act – if it fails to give parents advanced controls and new choices – Congress will.”


Congress did act in 2006 to pass the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased the maximum fine for indecency tenfold. That wasn't a technological fix, but a bigger hammer for the FCC – if, and only if, it decided to enforce indecency violations. We don't know whether Obama favored it, since it cleared the Senate without a roll-call vote, but it passed the House by a whopping 379 to 35, so one might expect a senator aspiring to be president would have voted Yes.


Senators need to ask Mr. Genachowski if he will genuinely and publicly pressure broadcasters and cable chieftains to shape up, since even Obama knows almost everyone is disgusted to sit in front of the TV with their children? Will he at least give the public the ability to stop funding wretched channels if they want? And will he enforce indecency with fines – as he has been mandated by law to do – or remove all the watchdog's teeth and let it sleep on the porch.