Lead Us Not Into Temptation Island

Rupert Murdoch is beloved by many political conservative junkies for adding the diversity of Fox News Channel to the cable lineup. But for those who cherish traditional values, the sewage-laden Fox entertainment network continues to be a hugely difficult problem.

One of the Australian-American tycoon's latest business moves was a failed attempt to acquire the DirecTV satellite company away from General Motors. When DirecTV announced it would merge with EchoStar's Dish network instead, Murdoch deployed his Washington lobbyists and publicists to torpedo the deal with federal regulators at the Federal Communications Commission and the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. On October 10, the FCC spurned the deal by a 4-0 vote, saying the merger of the nation's two major satellite providers was anti-competitive, the first time the FCC has voted against a merger since 1967. Now, with GM desperate for cash, they may sell to Murdoch for a lower price than he previously offered.

Murdoch's army in this fight was a strange band of allies. It might seem politically weird for right-leaning Rupert to employ liberal former New York attorney general Bob Abrams. But it was culturally weird for Murdoch to have the support of the Traditional Values Coalition and the National Religious Broadcasters. Why would this section of the religious right lead us into "Temptation Island"?

Fox's entertainment TV arm may have stumbled into successful family fare this summer with "American Idol," but the fall has returned with more typical programming. Even before the sex-obsessed series "Boston Public" reappears, Fox will have given the audience "Fastlane," a very hip, cinematic series about young undercover cops. (The show is rebroadcast on basic cable's home for sleaze, MTV.) A recent episode opened with a young woman searching the undercover cop for a wire, including fishing down the front of his pants. Then she asked playfully, "If I was here to get bent over and doggied, wouldn't I be barking?"

The show also attracts viewers with violence, including shootouts with cops getting their chests busted open on camera. In one scene, masked men invade a house, hold the victims at gunpoint, and tie their hands with plastic cords. One victim says furiously, "In my next life I'm coming back as a pair of pliers and pulling off your nutsack."

Does this network sound like the ideal owner for one of the nation's two leading satellite providers? When Christine Hall of CNSNews.com asked TVC leader and Reverend Lou Sheldon why he assisted Murdoch by arranging a meeting with the National Religious Broadcasters, he could only say "Fox studio has a long way to go. But Rupert doesn't own that outright. He can't control [it]. It's like an adult son."

Many family-oriented groups have met with and written letters to FCC Chairman Michael Powell asking him to do something about Fox's regular flouting of FCC decency regulations. Last February, fifteen groups asked that the agency stop its pattern of dismissing obscenity complaints with minimal or no fines. (Since then, the FCC's promise merely to take a look at shock jocks Opie and Anthony encouraging sex inside churches led to their removal.) But missing from that list of Fox-fighting family groups was the Traditional Values Coalition. The "adult son" got no heat from them.

To be sure, religious broadcasters have their own reasons for siding with Murdoch and against EchoStar. They say the satellite providers have opposed "must carry" regulations, which force cable and satellite providers to carry more religious programming. The NRB also claims EchoStar has a bias against Christian programming, and features too much pornography. But other religious broadcasters believe the EchoStar-DirecTV merger could have eliminated duplication and broadened the availability of family-friendly and religious programming.

Who is right? In today's complicated merger process, it's hard to know. If Murdoch swoops in and gets DirecTV cheap in the next few months, we'll have a better idea. But regardless, the media merger process is now getting increasingly similar to a political campaign, where regulators aren't just evaluating the efficiencies of competition, but the political implications of siding for or against a major corporation or interest group. Lobbyists for and against a media merger now campaign to line up supporters and make campaign promises.

Murdoch clearly made a successful pitch that he would make plenty of satellite room for the broadcasters who added religious and moral support to his lobbying campaign. If DirecTV becomes Murdoch's new plaything, and another gust of wind beneath the wings of Fox-like offensive programming Hollywood, many ministers of the airwaves may have some explaining to do.