Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Control-freakery at the FCC

The federal government is apparently preparing to break out its blue pencils. Specifically, the Federal Communications Commission is poised to expand its power and launch a political jihad against violent television programming. According to The Washington Post:

Federal regulators, concerned about the effect of television violence on children, will recommend that Congress enact legislation to give the government unprecedented powers to curb violence in entertainment programming, according to government and TV industry sources.

You'll notice that the news report says "entertainment programming," not just "broadcast TV." That's because the FCC wants to dramatically extend its power beyond its traditional dominion over the "public" airwaves to programming carried over completely private cables and satellite links.

The report -- commissioned by members of Congress in 2004 and based on hundreds of comments from parents, industry officials, academic experts and others -- concludes that Congress has the authority to regulate "excessive violence" and to extend its reach for the first time into basic-cable TV channels that consumers pay to receive.

That's an enormous step that is guaranteed to run into legal challenges---and certainly runs afoul of the First Amendment. Until now, the FCC has claimed authority over broadcast television and radio because they use the public airwaves. Cable and satellite don't use public resources, so should be exempt from government censorship according to the usual line of reasoning.

In fact, the whole legally suspect concept of "public" airwaves was originally invoked (PDF file) by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and his corporate buddies as an end-run around private property and free-speech protections. That's right, the traditional argument that the FCC can regulate radio and television because they use the public airwaves has it exactly backwards; the airwaves were declared "public" so that the government could impose regulation on them.

So the FCC would seem to be testing the waters to see if it can extend its writ over media that have previously been immune to censorship.

The immediate catalyst for the FCC's move--beyond the bureaucratic imperative to accumulate power, of course--is the supposed rise in violent programming on television. Popular shows are supposedly growing more violent and, just as important, parents aren't exercising sufficient discretion over the programs their children see. Sufficient discretion to satisfy FCC commissioners, that is.

This is bad, we're told, because children ought not be allowed to view whatever qualifies as excessive violence.

I'll admit that I fall among those parents exercising what regulators no doubt consider insufficient discretion. I've never used the v-chip in my TV set, and I'm not about to start. I don't even use my satellite television company's handy-dandy parental controls. I might use those in the future, but I doubt it. I'm just not that terribly concerned that my kid might watch a bit of violence on the tube. I watched the three stooges and roadrunner cartoons as a child, and I survived the experience relatively unwarped.

And that's my choice to make.

Other parents have different standards, of course. For them, parental controls ranging from the v-chip to parental controls to the ever-present "off"-switch are always at-hand. They can use them, or not, as they please.

So, what bothers FCC commissioners isn't violence on television per se, but that many parents have their own opinions about how much violence their children should be allowed to see. Parents are exercising control--just not always the degree and type of control that regulators and politicians prefer.

The FCC isn't trying to protect kids from nasty television executives, but from the preferences of their own parents.

We don't need this sort of nanny-state second-guessing; it's intrusive, and it's insulting.

Let's see if the courts will stick to original principles and let the First Amendment keep the FCC at bay.



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