New National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr, when asked how broadcasters should approach the indecency issue, responded, “The NAB supports the First Amendment rights of people to say whatever they want to say. I think that is a given.”
It is indeed a given, a gift from our nation's founders. Nonetheless, Rehr's “for the record” support, expressed in a B&C interview (see page 4), is good news because, in the past, the NAB, despite its obvious clout, has too often been in the background on free-speech issues.
Rehr's assertive stance is a hopeful sign on the troubling content-control front. It should be a reason for broadcasters to cheer his inaugural address at the NAB convention in Las Vegas this week, in which he will call on the industry to go on the offensive on indecency rules and other issues, too.
In fact, it is time for the NAB to lead the fight against the indecency crackdown, which is essentially a smear on every station operator and programmer tarred with the FCC's broad brush. In that regard, we applaud the networks and stations that, earlier this month, sued the FCC over the commission's indefensible profanity rulings. In the matter of profanity findings that were part of the lawsuit, no fines were even involved.
It isn't easy for broadcasters to bite the hand that regulates them for the sake of principle. Stations and networks could have continued to hold their tongues and appease the regulatory agency that controls their fates. To their credit, they are pressing the issue.
The FCC is supposed to act like a judge in the complaint process. That means the number of complaints should have no impact on the ruling, any more than a mob should affect a verdict in a criminal trial. But commissioners have cited the volume of complaints as though it justifies the crackdown.
If the FCC plans to point to every e-mail as proof of TV's indecency, complainants should be required to affirm by affidavit that they have actually watched the show in question, as it was telecast. That would stymie the absurd campaigns of pressure groups that get viewers who visit their Web sites to mass e-mail complaints about shows they haven't even seen. (Complainants should probably also have watched it over the air, since one could argue that a program viewed over cable, satellite or telco is outside the FCC's indecency purview.)
But while broadcasters should be concerned about the FCC, they should also catch some of the contagious enthusiasm of their new president. Broadcasters have a great product that they need to market—and protect—more aggressively. The only way for broadcasters to survive is for them to lead.