Congress, which hightailed it out of town for its August vacation last week, did not leave on a high note where media issues were concerned. Most glaring were the rows of vacant chairs at the Nielsen hearing two Wednesdays ago and the misplaced attacks on the peer-to-peer (P2P) industry at the Grokster hearing.
Now, it's not that we like the idea of parading media executives in front of government officials bent on legislating or intimidating them into submission—whether the issue is election coverage, indecency or ratings. But Congress has the bullies and the pulpit. So if they are going to ask Nielsen President Susan Whiting, Media Rating Council Executive Director George Ivie and others to take the time and expense to travel to Washington, the least the Senate's “Full Commerce Committee,” as it was billed, plus three of the four co-sponsors of the TV-ratings bill, could do is show up and listen firsthand to their arguments.
The legislators appeared to have more-pressing engagements. Although staffers took notes, it isn't quite the same as actually having the people with the votes there.
It's a pity.
They might have learned something—maybe even figured out that it isn't the government's business to rate TV shows, or that Nielsen and the Media Rating Council were already on the same page (or close to it) when it came to new voluntary guidelines. Those guidelines, which Nielsen says it has agreed to in principle, would give the MRC more teeth without handing its leash over to the FCC, FTC and Congress. (Why does a Three Stooges bit suddenly suggest itself?)
With the exception of Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, who made a brief appearance, the only legislator at the Full Commerce Committee Hearing (there are 22 members) was Conrad Burns, who called the hearing. We'll take their absence as a general agreement by the Commerce Committee that trying to legislate fairness in TV ratings is a nonstarter.
We wish that there had been more no-shows at the Grokster hearing the next day. What should have been a discussion about balancing the need for peer-to-peer networks to share digital information against the protection of digital content from piracy devolved into an attack on P2P networks in general.
Even Hollywood was arguing that the Supreme Court got it right in the Grokster decision, that companies actively marketing their software for illegal downloading or protected content are abetting theft.
“Technology companies are happy; content providers are happy. The court did the right thing. Let's let it go and see what happens,” said Mitch Bainwol of the Recording Industry Association of America.
That was not good enough for Sen. Barbara Boxer and committee Chair Stevens, who were threatening to virtually shut down P2P facilitators over the issue of Internet pornography.
“In a year's time, if you have not moved to protect copyrights, to protect children,” said Boxer, “it's not going to sit well, regardless of what the court said.”
Well, what the court said would help protect copyrights from pirates. It just wouldn't tar everyone who had anything to do with helping trade digital files with that broad brush.
We don't know which is worse: not showing up or not appearing to understand the issue when you do show up.