Fast Track

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Bush to Parents: 'Turn Off Indecency'

Calling himself a free-speech advocate, President George W. Bush says parents, not government, are the “first line of responsibility when it comes to protecting children from indecent TV programming.”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb scheduled for airing Sunday night, Bush says, “They put an off button on the TV for a reason. Turn it off.”

But Bush did say there is a role for regulators. The government can, “at times, not censor but call to account programming that gets over the line.” The president says, when he interviews a new FCC chairman, he will ask where the candidate thinks that line is. Later, though, he clarifies that this is not a litmus test.

But don't look for a lighter hand on indecency from a new chairman. Bush adds that outgoing Chairman Michael Powell did a good job of balancing free-speech rights and the need to protect kids. Asked for his take on legislation to increase fines, Bush quips, “They're going to collect a lot of money when some of these TV shows are still on.”

Marmet Is Out at TLC

The Learning Channel SVP/GM Roger Marmet is apparently paying the price for the collapse of the network's ratings. Sources say he resigned Jan. 27, taking the hit for the abrupt fade of TLC's cornerstone hit, Trading Spaces. It was Marmet who scheduled the home-makeover show and exploited it mightily when it started regularly drawing quintuple TLC's average rating.

But TLC relied too heavily on the whole makeover genre, then had nothing as strong when it abruptly went stale. TLC ran Trading Spaces 10 or more times a week and spawned half a dozen imitators. The show slid from a 4.0 average Nielsen household rating to a 1.5.

Host Paige Davis was also dropped last week.

In other moves, TLC parent Discovery Communications handed out pink slips to two dozen staffers and eliminated another dozen positions. The company noted that it expects to add around 300 jobs in other areas of the company this year.

Food for Thought

Major advertising trade groups and food marketers have teamed up to fend off restrictions on marketing snack food to kids.

As scientists and doctors debate whether TV ads are contributing to rising obesity rates in children, the Alliance for American Advertising aims to be the industry's counter to activists' claims that TV spots selling Pop-Tarts and Cap'n Crunch are making kids fat.

“We have to become more pro-active because there is continual criticism of advertising related to childhood obesity,” said Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation, one of the new group's seven members. In addition to arguing against restrictions, the group will publicize food makers' efforts to make children's food healthier. Other members are General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Ferree Free From FCC

Following his boss's lead, FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree says he plans to quit his post in early March. His announcement came only days after agency Chairman Michael Powell said he will quit in March as well. Other Powell appointees are leaving the agency, too, including General Counsel John Rogovin, who resigned in mid January. Both Ferree and Rogovin had ties to Powell before they joined the FCC.

PBS Pulls Father-less 'Buster'

PBS has decided not to distribute a scheduled Feb. 2 airing—and March 23 re-airing—of a now-controversial episode of new kids show, Postcards From Buster.

But show producer WGBH Boston, which was “disappointed” in the PBS decision, defends the show and says it will air the program March 23 and make it available to other stations.

The episode in question, which mixes animation and live action, features animated rabbit Buster's visit to Vermont for some maple-syrup collecting and a visit with a family both of whose parents are women. The second part of the plotline generated some complaints, including a letter Tuesday night from Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

So, was it administration pressure that prompted the decision? A PBS spokeswoman says no. Although Spellings' concerns about whether this was the right venue to introduce this sensitive topic “dovetailed” with those of PBS, the spokeswoman says, the decision was made and stations informed before PBS President Pat Mitchell received the Spellings letter.

HBO Close To 'Sopranos' Sale

Home Box Office was on the cusp at press time of completing its megabucks auction for cable rights to its hit The Sopranos. TNT and A&E were dueling in the final rounds at the end of the week, having beaten out Spike, USA and FX. HBO had been seeking $1.8 million per episode, but industry executives say it could go even higher, to $2.1 million, past the record-breaking $1.9 million price Spike paid for CBS powerhouse CSI.

The pay network is offering 78 episodes of the Mafia drama for availability in fall 2006.

Although the versions that aired on HBO were loaded with colorful language, nudity and graphic violence, the network is offering edited versions to meet the tighter standards of basic-cable channels.

FCC Rejects Smut Complaints

The FCC tossed out 36 indecency complaints filed by the Parents Television Council against prime time network programming that aired between Oct. 29, 2001, and Feb. 11, 2004. The shows included some of TV's most popular and longest-running shows, including The Simpsons, Will & Grace, Friends, Dawson's Creek, NYPD Blue and Gilmore Girls. All the broadcast networks were included, except CBS, whose complaints were expunged by the FCC late last year as part of a consent decree. PTC complained because dialog during episodes in question included words like “dick,” “vaginal,” “hell,” “orgasm” and “penis.” Others featured sexual innuendo or implied sexual activity. The FCC ruled that the dialog and activity described in the complaints were too fleeting or insufficiently graphic to warrant a fine.

Broadcast-Decency Bills Return

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) reintroduced their respective indecency bills last week. Both are an attempt to try again to give the FCC more firepower in the fight against sex and rough language. The Upton bill boosts fines to a maximum $500,000 per incident. It also targets performers by making them liable for a fine for a first offense and upping that maximum fine from $11,000 to $500,000.

The Brownback bill increases the FCC fine for indecency from $32,500 to $325,000 per incident, up to a maximum of $3 million per incident.

Brownback and Upton introduced similar bills in the previous Congress, but they got loaded down with deal-breakers in committee, including targeting violence and media consolidation's effect on content.

Feds Won't Ask Court To Uphold Deregulation

Media companies won't have the backing of the Bush Administration or the FCC when they ask the Supreme Court to permit more media-ownership deregulation this week.

Justice Department and FCC lawyers confirmed last week they won't ask the high court to preserve loosened broadcast-ownership rules enacted in 2003. The FCC's sweeping deregulation was thrown out by the federal appeals court in Philadelphia in June. Monday, Jan. 31 is last day for appealing the decision. The lower court said the FCC failed to adequately justify the loosened limits on TV, radio and cross-industry ownership.

The National Association of Broadcasters, Tribune, Media General, Viacom and other industry players are expected to file appeals of their own. The support of government lawyers would have greatly bolstered their arguments.

Administration lawyers didn't explain their reasons, but an FCC source says both the Solicitor General and FCC lawyers agreed the case was weak because no constitutional questions are at stake.

Unless the high court overturns the lower-court order to rewrite the broadcast-ownership rules, the next FCC chairman will be forced to overhaul every rule governing local-TV ownership and crossownership. Because of political backlash against the FCC's attempted changes, the next version of the rules will presumably be much more restrictive than the one passed two summers ago.

The NAB and its TV-station-group members are desperate to resurrect FCC rule changes that would have permitted ownership of two TV stations in most markets and up to three in a handful of the largest cities. Tribune and Media General are fighting for the right to pair TV stations with a newspaper in the same town. Viacom wants to operate TV- and radio-station combos in more markets.

Opponents of media consolidation are overjoyed that the federal government isn't pursuing the case. “The victory today is a step in a long road towards building a media that truly responds to the needs of citizens,” says Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.

P&G's Biggest Buy Yet

While mergers are usually bad news for media outlets' ad budgets, Procter & Gamble's $57 billion acquisition of Gillette Co. makes it the world's biggest marketer, adding Gillette's $1 billion of ad spending to its already huge $5.5 billion coffers.

Madison Avenue firms say there's little brand overlap. There are, however, implications for a swath of ad agencies. Gillette's media buys rely heavily on high-end sports and male-oriented programming viewed by consumers who favor its shaving products and brands. P&G, however, is a packaged-goods–marketing organization known as an advertising penny-pincher and for its media-planning efficiency.

Even without the Gillette acquisition, P&G is revamping its marketing to find better ways to reach consumers. P&G is pushing its media agencies to adopt a sophisticated consumer-centric approach to “communications planning” that engages customers in new ways.

The likely beneficiaries are P&G shops, including Publicis Group, WPP Group and Grey Global, with Publicis' Starcom MediaVest Group and Carat Interactive—the two share P&G communications planning—most likely to assume media buying for Gillette. The likely loser? Omnicom Group, whose agencies have handled Gillette's business for decades.

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