Right Idea, Wrong Message


We were pleased last week when the National Association of Broadcasters, the sleeping giant on indecency, finally awakened. But we wish its anger had been directed more at the FCC and less at cable.

Phil Lombardo, chairman of the NAB joint board, railed against the FCC for fining radio and TV stations for indecency while doing nothing about cable and satellite operators.

But he chose to bait cable rather than spear the FCC. “At the same time that indecency regulations are being ratcheted up against local broadcasters,” he complained, “cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner are raking in hundreds of millions a year from pay-per-view hardcore pornography.”

His eventual point, fortunately, was that a continuing avalanche of fines or threat of fines could cripple local broadcasting by making it more timid and emptying its piggy bank. But by referring to cable’s sleaziest corner, Lombardo sounded as though he were proposing that the FCC start a cable/DBS witch hunt. Bad move.

Explaining the regulatory differences between cable and broadcasting to the average person is really nothing an average person should have to endure. Suffice it to say, there should never be indecency regulations on cable or satellite. But we’re sure millions of righteous viewers would love to put the squeeze on pay TV.

Let’s get down to one or two facts. Lombardo says that, last year, the FCC levied $7.7 million in indecency fines against broadcasters. Cable, as far as we can tell, hasn’t been fined a penny by anyone but continues to draw kudos because cable—unregulated cable—is considered hipper, edgier and more willing to take risks.

By comparison, the broadcast networks are now parodies of virtue: We note, with amazement, that cable’s Fox Sports Net program The Best Damn Sports Show Period retitled itself The Best Darn Sports Road Show Period when it aired on the Fox broadcast network prior to last Sunday’s Super Bowl. (Fox thought it might get fined for using the “damn” on broadcast TV. In 2005?)

What Lombardo ought to have said is that broadcasters should be as unshackled as cable. The fact is, broadcast networks—when they have not been cowed by the FCC—still don’t allow nudity or profanity except in extraordinary circumstances, or by mistake. And in the history of television, there have been remarkably few mistakes like that.

If broadcasters want to be as crude as cable, they should certainly have that right, which is what Lombardo, and every broadcaster, should say and keep saying. Indeed, Lombardo and the NAB should have said something sooner, louder and better.

The organization has been good at getting Congress to tread lightly on the business of broadcasting but has not taken the lead on controversial battles over the First Amendment. Lombardo says the NAB has $2.5 million set aside to fight indecency issues in court.

It’s time to use it. This business is about freedom of speech.