New fight looming over TV violence

Times Staff Writer

Federal regulators have concluded that Hollywood’s efforts to shield children from violent TV shows have failed and that Congress should authorize government action.

The Federal Communications Commission report, released Wednesday, promises to kick off a fierce fight on Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail, one that, like the ongoing battle over indecency, could well end up in the Supreme Court.

Citing university and government studies, the FCC concluded that violent programming was harmful to children and said Congress could craft limits that wouldn’t violate 1st Amendment rights. Specifically, the report said, lawmakers have the authority to give the FCC the power to restrict when broadcasters can air excessive gore and mayhem.


What’s more, the FCC determined, Congress can require cable and satellite providers to allow viewers to purchase only the channels they want, giving them the chance to opt out of certain kinds of programming.

“Clearly, steps should be taken to protect children from excessively violent programming. Some might say action is long overdue,” said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has pushed cable and satellite companies to offer “a la carte” pricing. “While the Constitution protects the right to speak, it certainly doesn’t protect a right to get paid for that speech.”

The FCC didn’t define violence in its report.

Broadcasters, the agency said, could short-circuit legislative action by voluntarily adopting a violence-free “family hour” at the beginning of prime time. Pay-TV services could also forestall action by reimbursing viewers for channels they don’t want to receive or allowing them to buy channels in smaller bundles.

Without voluntary action, Martin said Congress could require those changes.

He said he expected a legal challenge should Congress act on the recommendations, “but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still try to do something.”

The FCC study was requested in 2004 by a bipartisan group of 39 House members and will set the stage for legislation. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said he planned to introduce a bill in the next few weeks.

“Violent television content is reaching epidemic proportions,” he said. He called protecting children from extremely violent shows “one of the most critical communication issues of our time.”

Broadcasters and pay-TV companies adamantly oppose new regulations. The major broadcast networks have chafed at the FCC’s aggressive indecency enforcement under Martin, suing the agency last year. A court is expected to rule soon.

NBC Universal said in a statement Wednesday that “regulating ‘violent content’ without clear, objective, and consistent standards” would “threaten the wide range of programming enjoyed by American audiences.”

Two-thirds of U.S. households have no children under 18, the network pointed out.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. criticized the FCC report, saying the V-chip and other parental controls were better solutions. The TV industry is in the midst of a $300-million campaign to educate parents about blocking technologies and the FCC should give it time to work, said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s executive vice president.

The American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in, blasting the FCC’s recommendations as “political pandering.”

“Monitoring what your children watch on television is a parent’s responsibility -- not Uncle Sam’s,” the ACLU said.

Although the report was approved 5 to 0, two commissioners criticized some of its findings. Robert M. McDowell, a Republican, said it “fails to illuminate a path for Congress” to avoid “legal pitfalls.” Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat, complained about the failure to define violence: “After three years, it’s pretty disappointing this is all we came up with.”

The FCC said a definition was possible but would have to be “narrowly tailored.” Martin dismissed criticism that a workable definition would be impossible, noting that the TV ratings have specific violence categories.