FCC Opens Cable-Violence Inquiry


At the request of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission 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 commission’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 services.

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 ban the TV broadcast of indecent speech between 6 a.m.-10 p.m., when children are likely to be a substantial part of the viewing audience. Violations may result in large monetary fines.

But the agency noted that the courts have frowned on cable-content restrictions because cable operators can provide channel-blocking equipment to subscribers -- a remedy that is considered less restrictive than a ban on constitutionally protected speech.

Nevertheless, the FCC asked for comment on whether it has authority to regulate violence on cable and DBS.

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, such as Home Box Office.

The FCC also asked whether establishment of a “safe harbor” for violent cable programming between 10 p.m.-6 a.m. would pass muster with the courts, even if protecting children -- a rationale the courts have called compelling -- 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 violent programming is, let alone harmful violent programming.

The agency added that it might have to drawn contextual lines between violent cartoons like Road Runner and violent movies like Schindler’s List.

“Context is key to the determination of whether or not violence is appropriate,” the commission said.

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

An inquiry is one step short of a rulemaking. It appeared from the notice that the FCC would fashion recommendations for Congress before moving to the rulemaking stage.

Only FCC commissioner Michael Copps issued a statement in connection with the release of the inquiry. He indicated support for a crackdown on media violence, particularly on broadcasting.

“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.

He 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.

Cable operators that violated the FCC's violent-programming rules could face fines of up to $3 million per day under related legislation the Senate adopted the same day in June.

Under the Hollings bill, premium and pay-per-view cable programming would be exempt, and the FCC would have the discretion to exempt news programs and sporting events.