FCC Commissioner Michael Copps may appear to be a lone voice railing against media smut and violence. In fact, he is a lead tenor in an increasingly vocal chorus of policymakers who say the airwaves need a good scrubbing.
In a USA Today
column last week, Copps reprised his familiar lament that broadcasters are engaged in "a race to the bottom" with liquor ads, sweeps-week lingerie shows, and corporate suits chasing ever more shocking jocks. He also warned that the industry risks government regulation unless it cleans up its act, perhaps with a voluntary code.
Although FCC Chairman Michael Powell would like the issue to go away, it isn't. Lawmakers are threatening to jump in if the FCC doesn't act, and, just last week, a coalition of religious and family-values groups filed a complaint against Fox Broadcasting's Boston Public.
In late January, the FCC received a demand from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd for a report on the "declining standards of broadcast television" and the impact on children. The FCC also must explain what it's doing about objectionable programming.
Boston Public, a high school drama by Emmy-winning producer David Kelley,
is under fire for such storylines as a female candidate for class office performing oral sex on a male opponent to gain his support and a teacher's affair with a student.
and its ilk do not belong in prime time, when any child in America can see them," the groups said in a letter to Powell. Organizations signing the complaint included Focus on the Family, Morality in Media, the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council.
Fox, accustomed to criticism from morality watchdogs, barely flinched. "Boston Public
deals dramatically and responsibly with real issues, sometimes sensitive issues, that kids face every day in school," said company spokesman Scott Grogan.
Powell, who would not comment for this story, has stayed silent as Copps's complaints grow louder. He probably wishes the final word on the topic was the FCC's report to Congress last year, which concluded that stronger content regulation would likely get knocked down by the courts.
He might get lucky. Although the NAB is reluctant to convert its "statement of principles" regarding age-appropriate broadcasts into a voluntary code of conduct, some local broadcasters and networks say acting on Copps's invitation might be the smartest move if they are to escape tougher regulation.
"His views are taken seriously," said NBC lobbyist Robert Okun. He points out that the network's promise to air liquor ads only after 9 p.m. and to eschew ads targeting young people and hyping celebrities is just the kind of code Copps is seeking.