NAB Chairman Blasts Indecency Crackdown


National Association of Broadcasters joint board chairman Phil Lombardo Thursday blasted the Federal Communications Commission for its unequal treatment of broadcast stations versus cable and satellite when it came to indecency standards, saying that the NAB had a $2.5 million legal fund that could be used to fight the indecency crackdown in court, although he would not identify any particular case.

The NAB has been relatively quiet during the almost-year-long flap over indecency, but Lombardo was anything but reticent.

He did say that he expected the indecency crackdown to wind up in court, and "soon."

At a Media Institute Lunch in Washington Thursday, Lombardo labeled an "indecency disconnect" the fact that while broadcaster had been fined $7.7 million for indecency (compared to $48,000 just four years ago),  cable had been fined nothing.

"At the same time that indecency regulations are being ratcheted up against local broadcasters," he said "cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner are raking in hundreds of millions a year from pay-per-view, hard core pornography."

Lombardo would not say whether the outcome he sought was a repeal of the Pacifica Supreme Court decision (the so-called "George Carlin seven-dirty-words" decision), which reaffirmed the FCC's ability to regulate content, or whether he wanted cable and satellite to be equally regulated.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association responded by pointing out what it sees as a central difference: "Cable is a subscription service that people invite in their homes," said NCTA spokesman Rob Stoddard. But that said, "A year ago, cable pledged free blocking of any cable channel for families. That, combined with set-top parental controls, V-Chips in 100 million TV sets, and media literacy information, we think, makes cable the ultimate in choice, control education education,"

Lombardo's issue, he said, was that the disparate treatment could cripple local broadcasting.

Suggesting that the "average" consumer draws no distinction between pay and broadcast programming--85% of households get their TV from satellite and cable--he said said the continued disparate treatment threatened the very viability of local broadcasting in a multi-channel environment.

"Are policymakers on the verge of killing free-over-the air broadcasting with rules that stifle our ability to compete in today’s multi-channel universe?"

He answered his own question, saying that had he not preempted Saving Private Ryan on his three ABC affiliates (it had un-edited F-words per an ABC agreement with Director Steven Spielberg), it could potentially have cost him $3 million in fines, fines he could not afford to pay having already had to borrow money for the DTV transition (he runs Citadel, which includes some smaller-market stations).

To illustrate how broadcasters have been "tied in knots," he cited an S word on NBC's Tsunami relief special recently that could have gotten stations in trouble to the tune of million-dollar fines.

He also invoked the war on terror, saying that in time of war, "surely something is amiss when a local broadcaster can't air a fallen warrior's funeral out of concern over retaliation from the FCC."

He was referring to Phoenix TV stations that cut-away to regular programming after an F-word during the televised eulogy of NFL player Pat Tillman, who died in Afghanistan.

A number of broadcasters have asked the Supreme court to review the Red Lion decision it if agrees to review the remand of the FCC's ownership rules. That decision undergirds the spectrum scarcity argument for broadcast regulation, including of indecency.

Although the NAB was precluded from raising Red Lion in its petition to the court for ownership reg review, Lombardo suggested NAB wouldn't take that route anyway, saying he supported the scarcity argument for regulating broadcasters.