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Editorials

1/14/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Now what?

The FCC resolved one long-standing issue last week and left another important one hanging like a West Palm Beach chad.

With some last-minute compromises resulting in access conditions that made Gene Kimmelman positively giddy, the commission signed off on AOL Time Warner. Access to unaffiliated ISPs, other instant messengers and the interactive TV competition was the price exacted by the FCC's democratic majority as their parting shot. The companies themselves and the cable industry in general would have preferred fewer regulatory precedents for the conduct of their business. Perhaps they now wish the endless process could have dragged on a wee bit longer, say until Michael Powell, who dissented from the conditions, was in the center seat. Still, both sides can live with the result.

On that score, we agree with NCTA that these conditions should not automatically become the law of the land for cable. Each merger is different, and this one was unprecedented. One size does not fit all. And looking on the bright side, AOL Time Warner gets to be arguably the most powerful multimedia company in the nationa. Perhaps, after all, it is better to have the access issues raised and addressed, rather than having them appear as a Greek chorus of monopoly charges amortized over the life of the company.

Now to the hanging-chad issue. The FCC punted on some key digital-TV decisions, in part to get AOL TW done and in part to clear the agenda for a farewell to outgoing Chairman William Kennard. Fair enough, but it served as a fitting metaphor for the ongoing delays in the conversion to digital. The FCC has promised to deal with DTV this Wednesday. The NAB is also meeting in sunny (cross your fingers) California to decide what it should say and do. Whatever their decisions, it's important that somebody sends a clear signal, and soon, to the programmers and equipment manufacturers who will drive the digital revolution. Failing that, we're with new Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin, who says he's ready to hold hearings on the holdup.

You be careful, now

Just think of us here as a kindly aunt, wagging our finger and chucking the industry under its chin.

We've now heard or seen some of the reality plans, both network and syndication, for next season. It was inevitable that the popularity of Survivor
would launch a host of imitators. Suddenly, rats are looking tastier all the time, and we wouldn't be surprised if there is a run on Tiki torches at the local hardware store. CBS has already locked up Survivor
3 and 4 and is joking about number 19 (OK, make that half-joking). And Richard Hatch is stretching his fame to a half hour with a reality pilot for NBC.

We'll insert our caveat here: Programmers are business people. If viewers express a preference for nude bear baiting, such shows will proliferate. It's supply and demand. It's the freedom to program and to watch. It's the American way.

Yes, but. And the "but" is that programmers must be careful what they pander to. The flip side of freedom is responsibility. The people who agree to put their emotions on display for, say, a Temptation Island,
bear responsibility. They know the drill, or ought to. But, hey, if the money's good enough, you can get people to do anything. There is, as Anthony Quayle used to point out, a touch of evil in all of us. That point was brought home again last week after Fox had to boot a couple off its Temptation Island
because they had lied about having a child (the show aims to be a relationship wrecker, not a home wrecker for crying out loud). The show producer is Rocket Science Laboratories. It does not take one to see this sort of thing coming.

That's where the programmers come in. They need to understand and acknowledge the inherent risks of setting up real emotional conflicts for the entertainment of the masses. Perhaps not publicly, since that might create legal hassles in case the fires they are starting do not confine themselves to torches, but at least to themselves. We're not here to slam any show, or even to diss the genre. We are here to remind programmers that they are the authors and editors of these works, not their common carriers.

The real McKay

We want to join NBC in thanking ABC for giving us an opportunity to watch Jim McKay preside over another collection of Olympic moments. With NBC locking up the rights to the Olympics for the next decade and McKay with a lifetime contract at ABC, the only way we were going to see him in the Olympic anchor chair again was for NBC to ask and ABC to say yes. Both happened. ABC's move was a class act for a classy man.

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