McDowell calls for indecency enforcement now


In an address before the National Religious Broadcasters Association, Commissioner Robert McDowell noted a 1.3M FCC backlog of indecency complaints and said that the fact that enforcement issues were in the courts was no reason not to move forward on them. He also discussed other areas of concern, including children’s media, excessive paperwork and a backdoor Fairness Doctrine.

McDowell noted the shiny new unused weapon the FCC has in its anti-indecency arsenal – the $325K top-drawer fine given to it by a large majority of the House and a unanimous Senate – and said that just because indecency cases were on appeal was no reason to move against the mountain of aging complaints. He said there is always something happening in court, and the FCC must carry on its duties even while its attorneys are thus engaged.

He mentioned the proceeding to improve parental controls on children’s television viewing, and pointed out the difficulty the V-Chip poses in putting together a ratings system that everybody can understand and be happy with.

He expressed skepticism about proposed localism enhancements like community advisory boards, shortened license terms and particularly “enhanced disclosure,” which is currently on TV’s doorstep but would spread, he predicted, to radio as well if it takes root. He was hopeful that particular item would remain hung up in the Office of Management and Budget on grounds that it would create too much paperwork. McDowell said some have estimated it may require two full-time employees per station to keep up with.

McDowell noted the oft-repeated promise of new Chairman Julius Genachowski that there will be no effort of any kind to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. He promised he would be on guard for any backdoor attempts to achieve a similar doctrine via the localism proceeding.

RBR-TVBR observation: Broadcasters will need an advocate within the Portals to point out the absurdity of many of the localism planks the FCC is considering, and it looks like McDowell may be that champion.

Let’s spell this out in very simple terms. The FCC cannot regulate content. If a broadcaster decides to put on a 24/7 syndicated program stream with a point of origin 3,000 miles away, and people within the station’s contour tune it in, then that station is in fact serving the public interest.

It doesn’t matter what’s in the station’s public file. And it doesn’t matter what other local citizens think – 95% could sign a petition saying the station should put on a local affairs program, but they have no standing to overrule the licensee, and they have no standing to trample on the rights of the 5% of the local population that listens to the station as is.

Otherwise, 95% of a local population could protest a foreign language station on grounds that they cannot understand a word the station broadcasts. Obviously, the 5% minority that does understand has a right to a media outlet, just as any 5% audience, whether it’s tuning in a shopping service, a polka program or whatever, has a right to a media outlet.

With no recourse against a licensee for program content, the FCC has no need to collect the data. We think it’s as simple as that.

As for indecency enforcement, many observers believe that the narrow ruling for the FCC on fleeting expletives left fertile ground for attacking indecency enforcement in general. If the FCC goes on the indecency enforcement warpath, it may widen the to-date narrowly-defined court battles with results that anti-indecency foes may not care for.