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Thursday, May 18, 2006

What Does Broadcast Censorship Accomplish?
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Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is making a major push this week to pass legislation through the Senate that would significantly increase fines for "indecent" broadcast programming. The bill, S. 193, which was originally introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), would hike fines against broadcasters that air obscene, indecent or profane material to a maximum of $325,000 per incident. (The current limit is $32,500 for supposed violations).

Such legislation makes good election year fodder for politicians, and it obviously appeases a base of potential voters who feel there is too much "smut" on TV or radio today. For both groups, the rallying cry here is: "it's for the children!" But I want to ask both groups a serious question: Do you really think broadcast censorship accomplishes that goal today?

Seriously, look at these recent Bolt Media poll numbers. Almost 80 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds surveyed were unable to even name who the big 4 TV broadcasters are! (They are ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox just in case you don't know). Meanwhile, the majority of respondents (85 percent) said they spend their free time on the Internet, compared to only 69 percent who said they spend their free time watching TV.

These findings aren't at all surprising. As I have noted before, the ironic thing about the claim that these big broadcast fines are "for the children" is that our kids today are increasingly tuning out broadcast options and tuning into to a variety of other UNREGULATED media outlets and technologies. Kids are now getting a significant portion of their information and entertainment from the Internet (think GoogleNews and MySpace.com), blogs, iPods & MP3 players, cell phones, PlayStation Portables, TiVos, cable & satellite networks, and so on.

Sure, a lot of kids still watch broadcast TV too. But are they really "consuming" that much more broadcast TV than alternative media sources? Most surveys show that the highly-coveted 18-34 year-old demographic is turning away from "over-the-air" TV and radio in large numbers and that the migration will likely continue and even pick up serious steam in coming years. (Incidentally, 85% of all Americans already subscribe to cable or satellite television, meaning that only a small minority of homes continue to rely exclusively on over-the-air antennas to pull in a broadcast TV signal).

So, this means that traditional broadcasters are getting doubly screwed. Some of their most prized viewers / listeners are flocking to alternative media outlets and sources in large numbers, and those competitors do not face the same rules that continue to shackle broadcast TV and radio networks or stations. Does this policy make any sense? Shouldn't everyone who provides content in this competitive environment be treated equally in the eyes of the law? If the First Amendment protects speech on all those new media sources, shouldn't it also protect speech on broadcast TV and radio outlets?

And what about all that broadcast content going out to the masses over those alternative distribution channels and devices? Why is it that an episode of "Lost" or "CSI" is given full First Amendment protection if downloaded from the Net and viewed on a video iPod, but that same episode is only accorded second-class citizenship in terms of First Amendment rights when it is shown on a broadcast TV station? Again, does this make any sense? Of course not. The rapid pace of media convergence and technological innovation has made the old regulatory standards increasingly illogical and largely unworkable (at least for new outlets and technologies.)

Supporters of current broadcast censorship efforts will disagree, of course, but they will be on increasingly weak intellectual and legal footing in arguing for the continuation of an asymmetrical regulatory policy that unfairly singles out one set of speakers relative to all others. Moreover, in continuing to unfairly single out broadcasters relative to their many competitors, regulators could be writing a premature death warrant for "free, over-the-air" television and radio. If the FCC continues to act as a national nanny and force broadcasters to air only the sort of bland fare that 5 unelected officials at the FCC say is "good" for us, then the masses will continue their gradual migration to alternative media outlets.

Regardless, today's broadcast censorship laws do little "for the children." If critics want to make a consistent argument in favor of censorship, they have to be willing to cast a much wider net and start regulating all these new technologies and media outlets as well. I won't get into what a regulatory nightmare that would entail.

Of course, one can always take the superior path: Personal and parental responsibility. As I have documented in my recent PFF study "Parents Have Many Tools to Combat Objectionable Media Content," a stunning array of parental control options are available to families today. That's especially the case for television. The combination of V-Chips, cable & satellite set-top box controls, VCRs and Tivos, mean that parents now have multiple layers of controls at their disposal. Whether or not they take advantage of those tools is another matter entirely. But they DO exist.

Regardless, the notion that massive increases in broadcast fines will really have a significant impact on what our children see or hear today is absolutely preposterous. Pro-censorship policymakers and media critics seem stuck in a time warp and imagine that their actions will somehow have a significant influence on the makeup of our modern media marketplace. Someone needs to let them know that it's not 1950 anymore.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 7:47 PM | Free Speech

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