FCC Opens Cable Violence Inquiry

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At the request of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission last Wednesday opened a proceeding that could result in the regulation of violent programming on cable.

Dozens of House members — both Democrats and Republicans — asked the FCC in March to examine the possibility of regulating TV violence, alarmed by studies showing that TV violence was growing and affecting the behavior of children in negative ways.

Although the letter appeared to limit the FCC’s effort to broadcasters, the agency’s 15-page notice of inquiry asked a number of searching questions about its authority to extend violent program restrictions to pay-TV providers, such as cable operators and direct- broadcast satellite operators.

RESTRICTIONS AND DEFINTIONS

One idea the FCC floated was to expand its broadcast-indecency rules to include violence and apply them to TV stations and pay-TV providers alike.

FCC rules bans the TV broadcast of indecent speech between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are likely to make up a substantial part of the viewing audience. Violations may result in large monetary fines.

But the FCC noted that the courts have frowned on cable content restrictions because cable operators can provide channel-blocking equipment to subscribers.

A spokeswoman for the Parents Television Council, which advocates a crackdown on broadcast indecency, said the group supports FCC regulation of violence on basic cable, but not on premium channels.

The FCC also asked whether establishment of a “safe harbor” for violent cable programming between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. would pass muster with the courts, even if protecting children is the basis for the regulation.

In its inquiry, the FCC noted that it had to cope with a number of definitional issues, claiming that it would not be easy to define what is violent programming, let alone harmful violent programming. The FCC said it might have to draw contextual lines between violent cartoons, like the “Road Runner” shorts, and violent movies like Schindler’s List.

The agency said it would also need to apply definitions to children, noting that research has shown that children under the ages of seven or eight are “especially impressionable because they have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality.”

Only FCC commissioner Michael Copps, indicating support for a crackdown on media violence, issued a statement in connection with the inquiry.

“Wanton violence on the people’s airwaves has gone unaddressed for too long. That is why Congress is moving on this on a number of fronts,” Copps said.

HOLLINGS BILL

Copps was evidently referring to Senate-passed media violence legislation sponsored by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), for whom Copps worked as an aide for many years.

The Hollings bill would require the FCC to conduct a rulemaking and decide whether to impose violent programming restrictions on cable and satellite operators if the agency found that blocking technology was failing to shield children from “excessive or gratuitous” TV violence.

Until that rulemaking, the FCC would be required to craft rules banning at any time the distribution of violent programming that is not blockable with the V-chip in TV sets. Hollings said the ban would give TV networks and distributors the incentive to apply a “V” for violence rating where appropriate.

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