Wake Up Call
Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/25/2004 8:00:00 PM
Our applause would be louder if broadcasters hadn't already dug themselves a big hole and if they had presented a more united front. Nonetheless, the industry last week finally began standing up to the FCC and threatening to take the indecency fracas to court, where, presumably, the First Amendment isn't considered some theoretical document to work around.
Still, a cold wind of fear is blowing through the industry. Last week, it was revealed that LIN TV, a major broadcast group, plans to begin tape-delays of its news and sports broadcasts in the name of political and economic expedience. That's hugely troubling. Delaying Live at 5? Talk about oxymorons. Impossible? We would have thought so until a few weeks ago. Add to that the complaint against CBS's 60 Minutes last week for airing a barely audible s-word, and news' historic insulation from the content witch hunts seems to be crumbling.
Ordinarily, we might handicap the chances of the 60 Minutes complaint as slim to none, but now we can't. Given the FCC's decision that profanity, regardless of context, can get your pocket picked or your license pulled, all bets are off. Add the fact that the complainant (see Airtime below) is the same kind of "angry guy with a fax machine" who has wielded much influence in the past, and broadcasters should be afraid, very afraid.
CBS, Fox, and some other brave broadcast groups weighed in at the FCC last week, urging the commission to reverse its decision that profanities can be fined regardless of context. NBC weighed in separately. Sadly, at ABC, the Mouse hid in its hole, perhaps too busy trying to figure out who next to put in charge of its troubled TV network.
We want to single out NBC Chairman Bob Wright for his decision to speak out publicly against the indecency crackdown, including proposing less content regulation for everyone, not more for the wired medium. Earlier NBC public statements on the issue, though not from Wright, seemed to support a crackdown on the theory that NBC programming had nothing to fear. Several years ago, NBC led opposition to program-content ratings on First Amendment grounds, so we're glad to have it back in the fight.
As Wright and other broadcasters must realize, they have everything to fear from government suppression of speech, even if this week it doesn't happen to be their own.
P.S.: We were conflicted last week about reporting the FCC complaints against 60 Minutes and Howard Stern by lawyer Jack Thompson. Were we helping perpetuate this imbroglio? The answer, we decided, is no. A bullying Congress, a suddenly regulation-happy FCC, and an obsequious industry have created a climate of crazed intimidation. Broadcasters need to know who is gunning for them.
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