Politicians Sneeze, NAB Catches a Code

Indecency task force weighs self-regulation

Station owners, network executives, and critics of media "indecency" huddled in private last week to figure out what to do about the state of radio and TV. After a whole day, they pledged to do better.

"The proof is in the pudding," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said. "Not 350 people attending a summit or putting together a task force, but what is put on the airwaves and whether broadcasters do anything to clean them up."

A day after that lukewarm appraisal of the National Association of Broadcasters' 350-person "Summit on Responsible Programming," NAB proudly announced it will—drumroll, please —form a task force.

So Copps will have to wait for his pudding.

The task force's first meeting will be during the NAB convention this month, and don't expect it to work at warp speed. "Concrete steps will not be taken for at least a couple of months," NAB President Eddie Fritts told reporters at the summit's conclusion. "This is not going to be resolved in 30 or 60 days. It's a long-term process."

The top issue will be how and whether to create an industry code of conduct or to revise the group's less-binding statement of principles.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is urging broadcasters to revive the code before Washington takes even more drastic actions: "You do not want the government to write a 'Red Book' of dos and don'ts," he said after the forum, which was closed to the press. "A 'Dirty Conduct Code' will not only chill speech, it may deep-freeze it. It might be an ice age that would last a very long time."

Fritts agreed, of course: "Given the serious First Amendment concerns surrounding issues related to program content, it is our strong belief that voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation."

Both Congress and the FCC have endorsed reviving the code, which presumably would establish a block of prime time for family-friendly programs. Although voluntary, broadcasters that don't sign on would be giving their reputations a black eye.

Powell urged broadcasters to revive a code of conduct "to guide your actions in the same spirit you have in years past." The broadcast code was eliminated after a Justice Department lawsuit, but Powell believes a new version could be crafted to avoid the legal problems that bedeviled it in the past.

Answering broadcasters' complaints that FCC guidelines aimed at spelling out what can and cannot be said on the airwaves are too vague, he warned that the public's increasing comfort with government "content intrusion" could lead to harsher restrictions than necessary.

The contrite pledges to shape up worry Patrick Maines, head of the Media Institute, a free-speech think tank funded by big media. "Media companies' acquiescence in this is my greatest fear," he told reporters. "A truly voluntary code of conduct would be fine, but the version the industry is moving toward is coerced and wrongheaded."

Regardless of whether broadcasters do more to police themselves, Washington is sure to toughen anti-indecency restrictions, some lawmakers believe. "Things had been steadily declining, and then you get the galvanizing event of Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl. This thing is moving," Sen. Sam Brownback said of his bill to hike fines for indecency violations and make performers liable in addition to station owners.

The Kansas Republican praised broadcasters' and cable operators' recent steps to explain the V-chip and other channel-blocking techniques to parents but said those efforts aren't enough. "Rather than warn people the river is polluted," said Brownback, "why not just take the pollution out?"

He predicts the Senate will vote on the bill after Congress returns from spring recess April 9. The House has already passed a similar version.

The bills in both houses would also boost the FCC's power to fine performers as well as stations.

Brownback believes the Senate will keep a provision blocking media-ownership deregulation despite opposition in the House and thinks some senators would fight to add cable and satellite programming under the same indecency rules as broadcasters. He sympathizes with that idea but thinks the move would cause legal problems that hurt the bill's overall prospects. "The Supreme Court has ruled on this," he notes.

Given free-speech lawyers' warnings about the looming new broadcast restrictions, the high court appears likely to get a crack at those, too.