Remember the V-chip? It’s an electronic circuit that can be used to filter out shows you deem offensive. Recently a group of media companies banded together to better publicize the device, which seems awfully altruistic. After all, why would CBS want to help us block out CSI? The answer: they hope to show that parents are better arbiters of taste than Uncle Sam, who appears to be gearing up to clamp down on decency standards. Salon’sMichael Scherertells Bob that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is among those leading the charge.
BOB GARFIELD: Remember the V-chip? It's an electronic circuit wired into the guts of your television that can be used to filter out shows you deem offensive. Recently a group of media companies has banded together to better publicize the device, which seems awfully altruistic. After all, why would CBS want to help us block "CSI." The answer? They hope to show that parents are better arbiters of taste than Uncle Sam, who appears to be gearing up to clamp down on decency standards, not only for broadcast but also for basic cable and satellite radio.
Michael Scherer, Washington correspondent for salon.com says the newly-appointed FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is among those leading the charge.
MICHAEL SCHERER: He's replacing Michael Powell, who for a long time was the boogeyman for people like Howard Stern, but Kevin Martin actually has a track record that's much more strict about issues of indecency. Actually, for a long time he's been saying that cable networks and satellite television providers have to do something about the kind of content that’s going over basic cable.
In the Senate, the biggest player right now is Senator Ted Stevens, who's one of the most powerful senators, has been for a long time, just took over the Commerce Committee which oversees these issues. And it's expected in the next several weeks or couple of months that he's going to bring up some legislation that will deal with possibly indecency fines, raising the amount of money that broadcast networks can be fined, and also possible regulation of things like basic cable or a changing in the way cable is delivered so the parents will have more choice, families will have more choice about what channels they take into their home.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, opponents of stricter regulation are mobilizing. One of the better financed-groups is a motley assortment of organizations, including Americans for Tax Reform, the Creative Coalition and various media conglomerates all under the name TV Watch. So what are up to?
MICHAEL SCHERER: They're arguing essentially that there’s technology in place right now, things like the V-chip, which you mentioned, or other blocking technology that parents should be using right now and there’s no need for the government to go any further in stepping in to block anything.
BOB GARFIELD: If people were using the V-chip but most families are not.
MICHAEL SCHERER: And, and the conservative critics say that it's too complicated and they also say that on almost ethical, moral grounds they don't want to be paying for content they find objectionable. What the V-chip allows you to do is to block the station from coming through your television but you're still essentially paying for that station on your cable bill. You're still paying to get the whole basic cable package.
BOB GARFIELD: I think there's a reflexive tendency to reject notions of government censorship of any kind. But some of the programming is pretty objectionable to a pretty broad swath of America. Are there any surprising voices speaking up in behalf of those who are looking to the FCC or other government entities to protect their children?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, some of the consumer groups, for instance, which aren't usually finding themselves allied with the evangelical right have joined on in a call for what’s called "a la carte cable," which is a way of providing cable so that each household would be essentially able to choose exactly which channels they want to be getting as part of the basic cable package.
You also have the discussion of television ownership, media ownership in general. One of the complaints that some people on the left have made for a while is that if you have fewer companies owning more stations you’re going to have less diversity in programming and less ability to respond to the needs of a particular community. So some of the progressive groups have been making some uneasy alliances and not complete alliances. They're trying to figure out where they stand on a lot of these issues.
BOB GARFIELD: Can a show be so popular that the government has no grounds upon which to restrict its content? I'm thinking of "CSI" which some people are very concerned with because of the graphic and grizzly images that appear on that show. On the other hand, it's one of the runaway blockbuster hits of broadcast television.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, I don't think popularity alone would keep them from restricting the content. The definition of indecency that the FCC uses has to do with certain sexual and bodily functions being employed during a certain time of the day when kids are likely to be watching or listening to the broadcast. And it also has to do with sort of a dreaded ambiguous phrase, "contemporary community standards."
And when it comes to something like that, it really does matter who's in charge of the FCC, who's appointing the staff to make these decisions, who the other commissioners are, because what a contemporary community standard is in one household, you know, or one neighborhood or one town or one state really depends. So the FCC does have a lot of power in that way to move the bar.
And I think you will see in the coming months a number of fines, probably mostly for radio but also for television, that will signal some sort of a shift about what is indecent and what isn't.
Under Michael Powell, the former FCC Chairman, it was somewhat muddied where the line lay. And Martin has promised to really make it clear and to make it a line that will make these groups that form the Republican Party and the President's base more happy.
BOB GARFIELD: It's very clear that in not too long a time no television will be distributed the way it is now and that presumably all of this stuff will be coming in through a variety of different pipes to a variety of different devices. When that times arrives, whether it's in five years or in fifteen years, will the FCC or the government really have any dog in this fight, when consumers are absolutely in control of what they watch and when?
MICHAEL SCHERER: That's an open question you just asked. The government though at this moment, both in Congress and the Executive Branch, seems to be moving in the direction of saying definitively "Yes, we will be involved in those discussions. Just because you’re paying to get it, you're choosing to give money to get this stuff in your homes does not mean that government shouldn't be involved."
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Scherer is the Washington correspondent for salon.com.
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