TV violence tough to curb despite FCC's new plea
Defining violence narrowly enough to satisfy the courts is a tricky challenge for Congress.
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If Congress does write legislation, a major challenge will be coming up with an acceptable – and narrow – definition of excessive violence. It would have to thread a fine line by, say, not allowing "24" to show a scene of a man tortured by having a drill thrust into his back – at least on prime time – but letting the evening news discuss violent crime and allowing stations to air something like "Miami Vice," "Schindler's List," or "Star Wars."Skip to next paragraph
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The FCC frames the issue and talks about the aspects of violence that should be discussed – including looking at it in context – but stops short of coming up with an actual definition.
Ever since 1978, the courts have allowed the FCC to regulate indecency on the public airwaves, but even that, say critics, has been problematic since the definition is so open to interpretation and is inconsistently applied.
"They've had a poor record of being able to define indecency and enforce what is and isn't indecent," says Marv Johnson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Now they want to muck about in what is and isn't violent…. The government always tends to use a blunt instrument when it regulates something, rather than a scalpel."
The recommendations – if they were enacted into legislation – would also be a broad departure from past precedent in terms of allowing the FCC to regulate not only the broadcast channels but cable and satellite as well.
In the past, says Professor Calvert, courts have allowed some oversight of broadcast TV because it's considered a public resource. But the FCC has argued that oversight of just broadcast stations is outdated, given the rise of cable, and that broadcast is often pushed into airing more and more graphic violence or more sexually explicit content because of a desire to compete with cable.
When the court upheld the FCC's right to regulate indecency 30 years ago, it mentioned the pervasiveness of broadcast, notes Tamara Lipper, an FCC spokeswoman. Today, cable and satellite are nearly as pervasive as broadcast and the FCC believes that it doesn't make sense to leave cable TV out of the equation, she adds.
Another recommendation that may have slightly more legal traction, since it's content-neutral and would have less bearing on free-speech rights, is the FCC's suggestion that the cable industry be forced to allow "a la carte" purchasing. That way, customers would be able to pick and choose their channels rather than having to buy dozens or hundreds of them in one bulk package. While consumers can currently block certain stations, they still have to pay for all of them.
"There's something fundamentally unfair about parents and families being forced to subsidize bestiality scenes on FX just to get the Disney Channel and Sunday afternoon football," says Mr. Isett of the PTC.
The cable industry has opposed such a change for years, however, arguing that it would increase costs and might force many smaller channels out of business, since there wouldn't be enough demand.