WASHINGTON Federal regulators are pushing Congress to expand the government's ability to regulate TV content, arguing that it requires the same powers to protect children from violent programs that it has to shield them from indecent content.
The FCC's recommendations for congressional action came in a report the commission issued Wednesday on a 5-0 vote, with one commissioner dissenting from part of the report.
According to the long-awaited report, the danger to children from violent TV programming is so great that Congress needs to give it authority to regulate violent content on broadcast and cable TV. The commission contends that the V-chip content-blocking device and cable's ability to block individual channels is a failure.
A bipartisan group of 39 members of the House of Representatives asked nearly three years ago whether the FCC could define "exceedingly violent programming that is harmful to children." It also asked whether the agency could regulate such programming "in a constitutional manner."
The commission suggests that Congress allow it to channel violent content into the late-night hours as it does now for indecent content on broadcast TV, and asks for Congress to allow it to force cable to set up an a la carte package where customers can block violent channels and not pay for them.
Commission chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican who has long favored content controls and has presided over an unprecedented crackdown on indecent speech, contends that there are ways to write a law regulating violent content without running afoul of free-speech concerns.
"Parents need more tools to protect children from excessively violent programming," he said. "And as the commission finds today, they need tools that address the violent programming on all platforms: broadcast, cable and satellite."
Martin added that the commission stopped short of defining what violent content is but said the TV industry has done much of the work as it defines different types of violence in the ratings system it developed for the V-chip, which he discredited.
"Violent programming is defined in the ratings system," he said.
Martin said the FCC based its decision on a plethora of evidence, most notably a 2001 report by then-Surgeon General David Satcher.
Martin contends the report finds that major studies, including those by the surgeon general and the Federal Trade Commission, have found that exposure to violent content on TV is associated with an increase in aggressive or violent behavior in children. The surgeon general's report was much more circumspect than Martin lets on.
"Taken together, findings suggest that media violence has a relatively small impact on violence," Satcher said when he released the report.
While the report finds that the impact the media has on violence is minimal, it does conclude that media-portrayed violence has some tendency to increase aggressive behavior in some "small to moderate" fashion.
"We clearly associate media violence to aggressive behavior," Satcher said. "But the impact was very small compared to other things."
The report finds that the most violent kids live in places where there are guns, gangs and drugs.
"Some may not be happy with that, but that's where the science is," Satcher said, citing expectations that some had about the report's findings at the time.
While Martin also touted the commission's vote, saying it was a "unanimous and bipartisan," it was clear some of the commissioners were uncomfortable with it.
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, said in an interview that he was concerned because the commission sidestepped the definition.
"The problem with this report we are presenting to Congress is that it is not clear from reading it which if any primetime shows are being recommended for regulation," he said in his statement, which dissents in part. "Are we saying Law & Order should be banned during hours when children are watching? It is anyone's guess after reading this report. The report is not a model of clarity."
Republican commissioner Robert McDowell voted for the report but said it is incomplete.
"Although I would have preferred a more thorough study, I support this report as a well-intentioned, if not complete, first step toward launching a new national dialogue on this important matter," he said.
McDowell warned against the view that the report is a panacea that will quell the violence in our society.
"I hope that our report does not lull some into thinking that government action alone is the answer to the television violence pandemic," he said. "By itself, government action would be an insufficient cure."
Martin contends that news reports like those that came after the shootings at Virginia Tech where 32 people were murdered, and the gunman committed suicide, would be protected by the commission's historical forbearance on enforcement of content controls on news programming.
McDowell wondered if that was enough.
"As recent tragedies have reminded us, we live in an often violent world. News reports, documentaries and other television programs must address violent topics, almost by necessity, which makes defining excessive violence that much more difficult," he said. "While we should encourage Congress' further examination of this issue, having a new statutory regime regulating television violence overturned by the courts on constitutional grounds only would undermine the very crusade against television."
Martin's strongest support came from senior commission Democrat Michael Copps, a serious proponent of strict indecency and violent content controls, and Republican Deborah Tate, who is pushing to control content that she claims makes kids fat.
"Serious and festering problems require solutions, so that the question here is not whether we should address the issue, but how we should address it," Copps said.
Tate agreed. "While I recognize the difficulty in drafting narrowly tailored and constitutionally sustainable definitions in this matter, after reviewing the studies and meeting with researchers and those who have been involved in this debate for decades, I am convinced that something must be done to help parents minimize the pernicious effects of violent programming on their children," she said.
NBC Universal on Wednesday condemned the report's vagueness.
"We strongly believe that by regulating 'violent content' without clear, objective and consistent standards, the FCC will in effect threaten the wide range of programming enjoyed by American audiences, including the two-thirds of U.S. TV households that have no children under 18," the company said. "The minority of U.S. homes with children have a wealth of very effective tools—including detailed program ratings, the V-chip and cable and satellite blocking technologies—to allow parents to control what their children watch on television."
Civil libertarians and conservative market theorists also condemned the report.
"The FCC is opening a regulatory Pandora's box with this report," said Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the libertarian Progress and Freedom Forum. "Censoring 'excessively violent' television programming is an endeavor without any meaningful policy guideposts."
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office, said the report is a cheap political ploy.
"The FCC's recommendations are political pandering," she said. "Government should not parent the parents."
This story updates and replaces an item posted earlier today with additional details and commentary.