Should the government regulate radio and TV broadcasts?
Jan. 13, 2012
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
When U2’s Bono stepped onto an awards show stage and dropped the F-bomb on live television almost a decade ago, it was a turning point for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The government body in charge of monitoring the broadcast airwaves – for, among other things, use of vulgar language – decided to step up its regulation, supported by a law signed by President George W. Bush. Television and radio stations could be fined for each instance of language considered vulgar by the FCC, or every time a violent act was portrayed. Broadcasters have been monitored by the government since the 1920s. In 1978, the Supreme Court in the landmark case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation upheld the FCC’s power to punish broadcasters that aired indecent material during prime time, when children were likely to be watching.
But back then, broadcast media were people’s lifeline to the world around them – a small number of television networks and a small number of radio stations that the majority of Americans tuned in to for news and entertainment. The regulation was intended to protect children from content that might be suitable only for adults.
Today, with hundreds of cable channels and millions of Internet sites, how much does broadcasting really matter?
That’s a question the Supreme Court has to decide. Last week, it heard arguments in a case similar to Bono’s blunder at the Golden Globes. In this case, singer and actress Cher used the same vulgarity when she received a lifetime achievement award on the Billboard Music Awards show, broadcast by Fox. The network was fined, and fought back, claiming censorship and a violation to its freedom of speech. After a series of appeals, the court will decide whether the fine was constitutional.
Carter G. Phillips, the lawyer representing Fox, told the court that “today, broadcasting is neither uniquely pervasive, nor uniquely accessible to children.” In other words, broadcasting TV and radio aren’t the only options out there anymore, and they’re not the only place your kid brother is likely to hear dirty words.
“To the average American viewer, broadcasting is just one source among hundreds in a media-saturated environment, and a mere press of a button on the remote control away from other, fully protected sources,” Phillips said, arguing that broadcasters should not be “denied the same basic First Amendment freedoms as other media.”
Critics also argue that the FCC is inconsistent with how its rules are applied. Network broadcasts of the World War II-themed film Saving Private Ryan kept the movie’s gory battle sequences and harsh language uncensored, and the networks were not punished. For a broadcast about the history of jazz music, where musicians used similar expletives, PBS was fined.
The Obama administration, on the other hand, supports the FCC’s power to regulate broadcast media more strictly, saying that it’s even more important in a world where violence, vulgar language and sexual imagery are commonplace on cable and the Internet. If broadcast media were deregulated, it argues, they, too, could enter the no-boundaries realm.
Arguing for the FCC, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wrote, “Generations of parents have relied on indecency regulation to safeguard broadcast television as a relatively safe medium for their children.”
What do you think?
Should the Supreme Court support government regulations on broadcast TV and radio? Does broadcast decency matter as much now that there are thousands of other media options? Or does the no-boundaries nature of cable and Internet make FCC rules more important, as the Obama administration argues? Is the FCC being inconsistent in applying its rules? Join the discussion!
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