In Depth

Adalian Column: New Chief Must Bring FCC Up-to-Date

Barack Obama has so many crises on his plate, the concerns and troubles of the TV industry seem about as relevant as the Wednesday night lineup on the Reelz Channel.

Nonetheless, those of us who care about the state of the small screen can still hope that Mr. Obama’s commitment to change will be applied to media matters. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Mr. Obama is winning generally rave reviews for his first big move in the communications space, the decision to tap Julius Genachowski to head the FCC. Most of the praise for Mr. Genachowski, however, has come because of his positions and policies on matters related to the Internet.

Mr. Genachowski’s views on important TV matters are less well known. Indeed, what little I’ve read about Mr. Genachowski’s actions during his last go-round at the commission—back in the mid-1990s, when he was chief legal counsel to FCC head Reed Hundt—has me a bit concerned.

Mr. Genachowski aided Mr. Hundt’s attempt to bully broadcasters into keeping a voluntary ban on hard-liquor ads. They ultimately retreated, many networks lifted the ban, and the world didn’t end.

The question now is, was Mr. Genachowski just a young up-and-comer following the misguided motives of his boss? Or does he actually think it’s a good idea for the federal government to micromanage Madison Avenue’s marketing budgets?

Mr. Genachowski’s potentially paternalistic streak was obvious when he lobbied for Mr. Hundt’s plan to require broadcasters to run a certain number of hours of educational programming weekly. Local stations duly complied, but a decade later, there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest kids are benefiting from being able to watch Jack Hanna cavort with cuddly creatures at 6 a.m.

Worrying about liquor ads in primetime or giving kids a few hours of supposedly good-for-you TV doesn’t make Mr. Genachowski a bad choice for FCC chief. It does, however, have me worried that Mr. Genachowski might believe the commission should play an activist role in dictating how broadcasters use the so-called “public” airwaves.

Such a notion is hardly radical; just the opposite. The FCC has always existed as a watchdog organization to keep networks and local stations in line.

And that’s the problem.

As someone who’s made millions from the Internet, Mr. Genachowski should understand as well as anyone the ridiculous double standard broadcasters operate under daily thanks to the FCC. While adults and kids everywhere have virtually unfettered access to the most extreme content imaginable via the Web, broadcasters live under the threat of crippling fines if an errant four-letter word ends up on their airwaves.

The good news is, Mr. Genachowski is unlikely to be a tool of right-wing censorship advocates such as the Parents Television Council. He’s a board member of Common Sense Media, a nonpartisan advocacy group that calls for “sanity, not censorship” when it comes to the media.

Under Mr. Genachowski, it seems unlikely the FCC will continue to act as an extension of the PTC, harassing broadcasters with needless investigations.

What’s less certain is whether Mr. Genachowski and President Obama have the inclination to go a step further and finally bring the FCC’s relationship with broadcasters into the 21st century.

Ideally, Mr. Genachowski would declare the FCC is getting out of the business of regulating what broadcasters can and cannot air at certain hours. He would recognize the lunacy of trying to protect kids from so-called obscene content on a few channels when the rest of their media universe offers easy access to such content.

Such a move would be brave, yet it probably also would be political suicide. Joe Sixpack loves to watch “Nip/Tuck,” but keeping shows like it on cable allows him (and Washington) to pretend that kids can’t see it.

There might be a way to give broadcasters the freedom they deserve while also doing something that helps children. Call it a grand compromise:

—Most rules regarding broadcast content would be eliminated. The “safe harbor” that allows networks and stations to broadcast so-called “obscene” material after 10 p.m. would be lifted completely. If Steven Bochco convinced ABC to air “NYPD 2012,” he could have every character display their bare butts and utter any four-letter word imaginable.

—In exchange for this freedom—and in recognition of the fact that they still kinda sorta are using public airwaves, even if most people get their content via private wires—broadcasters would pay a PBS tax. Funds raised from the fee would go to PBS, which would finally be able to spend its time producing quality content without having to resort to begging viewers for donations.

—In addition, PBS, the only broadcast network that actually airs a substantial amount of quality kids programming, could use the extra revenues to make sure kids who don’t have access to cable would have a healthy selection of educational fare to watch.

Such a plan would benefit just about everybody.

Broadcasters, who now are forced to play by different content rules, would have a more level playing field with cable. Advertiser concerns mean it’s unlikely the “How I Met Your Mother” gang would start cavorting naked. But the networks would have a broader creative palette to draw on.

PBS, chronically underfunded, could become as relevant here as the BBC is in the U.K.
Parents who can’t afford cable would have a well-funded alternative to serve kids’ needs, rather than the cheap-o kiddie fare local stations now pass off as educational (no offense, Jack Hanna).

And the FCC would be free to devote its energies to more important matters, such as Net neutrality or media consolidation, instead of responding to the whims of Brent Bozell’s sheep.

Considering how convenient a punching bag TV has been for politicians on both the left and the right, my grand compromise is probably a naive pipe dream.

On the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of an African American president with a Muslim-sounding name seemed pretty outside-the-box, too.