Senators: Rethink licensing

Letter to FCC calls for tying renewals to content, re-creating industry code of conduct
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Several senators have asked the FCC to examine whether broadcasters' licenses should be tied to the type of content they air.

"The license [broadcasters] receive is a legally binding contract, an especially important one given television's immense influence on our children and our culture," wrote Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to FCC Chairman William Kennard last week. "And much to our dismay, the evidence presented in this letter strongly suggests that many licensees, along with their network parents, are breaching this public trust and harming rather than serving the public interest."

The NAB had no comment.

In a lengthy letter to Kennard, the senators refer to several studies to prove their case. One study by the Parents Television Council revealed that, during the past decade, sexual references during prime time have increased more than 300% and use of crude language has gone up more than 500%.

Besides asking the FCC to consider tying broadcasters' digital license renewals to content, the senators also want the commission to consider re-creating an industry code of conduct. The NAB used to have such a code but dropped it completely in 1982 when the Justice Department ruled that part of it violated antitrust laws.

NAB has since said that the Justice ruling legally precludes broadcasters from writing any industrywide content code, but Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein maintained that it killed only a section pertaining to advertising, which does not affect content.

The senators are willing to introduce legislation, they say would easily pass, to clarify that a new code would not violate any law, he added.

The senators wrote the letter as the FCC reviews what broadcasters' public interest obligations should be once they make the transition to digital. Most broadcasters have opposed any new obligations, while advocacy groups have said that broadcasters should devise a code of conduct and contribute specific amounts of free airtime for political campaigns.

In 1997, Brownback and Lieberman began pushing broadcasters to create a new code, but broadcasters have largely ignored the call.