Critics Are Out for (No) Blood on TV
Powell is noncommittal on restricting on-screen violence
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/19/2003 7:00:00 PM
Critics of TV violence are urging FCC Chairman Michael Powell to restrict on-screen mayhem just as the agency does with sexually explicit programming, but the top industry regulator last week was skeptical that the FCC has the authority to move on its own.
"There may be room for more-effective indecency enforcement," Powell said. "But it's more complicated than just transforming the definition of indecency in a manner we would see fit."
Powell's comments came after Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps urged the agency to make reduction of television violence a priority and cited what they say is a growing body of scientific evidence indicating a link between TV violence and violent behavior among children.
"As medical studies mount showing a correlation between viewing violence and violent behavior, which is stronger than that of tobacco smoke and lung cancer, it is clear we must do something about the amount of indecency that plagues our airwaves," Brownback said during a Jan. 14 Senate Commerce Committee hearing. He has promised to tackle the issue as chairman of the panel's Science Technology and Space Subcommittee.
Although he wants the FCC to step up the fight against sexually oriented programming, too, Brownback said restraining violence is more urgent because evidence of harm from violent programming is more voluminous.
Powell waited a day to react, but the agency's two Democrats endorsed the Republican's concerns during the hearing. "I don't think we are doing an adequate job," Copps told the Senate panel. He first called on the FCC to include violent programming in its restrictions in November.
In his first public statement on the subject, new Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called on the agency to "uphold the law" and better promote V-Chip channel-blocking technology. "It's particularly profound for me to recognize that problem. ... We have some of the best programming on television these days, and some of the worst."
During an FCC meeting the next day, Powell said adding violent programming into indecency oversight won't be easy because a long history of legislation and court decisions has created specific guidelines of what constitutes objectionable programming. "The definition [of indecency] is not the commission's definition," he said. "The Supreme Court has insisted the definition is a matter of constitutional law. ... Indecency is carefully crafted by First Amendment jurisprudence."
Copps disagreed, suggesting that the indecency definition didn't have such a "clear history" and is open to revision.
The Supreme Court in 1973 ruled that "obscene" speech is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time. Less objectionable "indecent" fare may be aired during times when children are not likely to be in the audience, currently defined as 10 p.m.-6 a.m.
To be obscene, material must meet three criteria:
An average person would find the material appeals to base or "prurient" interests as viewed under contemporary community standards.
It depicts or describes in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by law.
It lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive, sexual or excretory organs or activities. The Supreme Court in 1978 upheld the FCC authority to bar indecent programming when children are likely to be watching. In 1992, Congress enacted a "safe harbor" permitting indecent programming between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The law was upheld in 1995.
Last week, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) introduced a bill that would ban violent programming during hours children are likely to be watching, unless coded with ratings that trigger the V-Chip channel-blocking technology.
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