Checking Indecency by Choice

Government must do more to help parents shield children from indecency in the media while still honoring freedom of speech. The task isn't easy, but the need is great.

For decades, network TV and broadcast radio have operated under indecency standards set down by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They're prohibited from running graphic sexual material, for instance, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching.

Cable and satellite TV are exempt from such rules because they're not on the limited (and thus publicly controlled) airwaves. And yet they connect to some 85 percent of TV viewers in the US. And satellite TV companies have upwards of 20 million subscribers. (Satellite radio, a new player, is also exempt.)

The FCC began to sharpen its regulatory teeth after Janet Jackson's unfortunate January 2004 Super Bowl performance. Along with slapping network broadcasters who show indecent programming with higher fines - radio and television broadcasters paid a record $7.9 million in fines for indecent programming last year - Congress has shown an interest in applying indecency rules to cable and satellite providers, on the grounds that consumers don't discriminate between network and cable TV shows.

And with newer media, such as the Internet and cellphones, carrying entertainment, the House and Senate might extend the long arm of the law even further.

Helping parents restrict access of media to children, however, remains the best option for government action. Much more can be done to promote the use of the industry's V-chip and voluntary ratings systems, and other means of enabling consumers to simply turn off the TV. The federal government could move immediately to force cable operators to offer consumers the ability to choose only those channels they want to come into their home - à la carte.

Too bad the cable companies are opposed to that good idea. They don't stand to make as much money if their "bundled" packages of programming are taken apart. But they probably would be able to protect themselves from more stringent regulation if they let customers pick programs.

Congress could also provide states with the money to teach children and families how to avoid indecent programming and seek alternatives.

Such steps would spare the FCC the difficult task of trying to define indecency precisely, and perhaps overreaching to the point that legitimate expression is suppressed.

The First Amendment protects both speech and the person hearing the speech. Individuals need support in avoiding programs they deem inappropriate, just as much as the First Amendment needs to be kept intact.

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