Lieberman steps up content pressure

Aug 6, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Washington’s war on Hollywood heated up last week when Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said the Federal Communications Commission should step up punishment of broadcasters that violate its indecency and obscenity rules by airing violent, sexual or profane content during shows that are popular with kids.
The agency routinely fines radio stations found to have violated the rules, but enforcement actions against broadcast networks and TV stations are rare. That’s because more people file complaints at the FCC about radio content than about television.
Cable is not covered under the rules because it is a subscription service.
“Maybe it’s time to appeal to the FCC to take another look at programming-to use the power that they have selectively. This power, incidentally, has been sustained by a federal appeals court here in Washington as constitutional,” the senator said last week.
The lawmaker has been on the warpath against Hollywood recently, holding a hearing two weeks ago on media content and pushing legislation that lets the government crack down on companies that market adult-rated content to kids.
He also supports universal ratings for the television, movie, video game and music industries and hasn’t ruled out legislation to accomplish the goal. And he backs an antitrust exemption for the networks so they can collaborate on a voluntary code of conduct.
On Aug. 1, he and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., publicly signed an open letter urging the six major broadcast networks to create a prime-time family hour.
The signing was at a Capitol Hill briefing by the watchdog Parents Television Council, which released a new study showing that televised violence, profanity and vulgarity are on the rise between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., when kids are often watching.
The group examined 200 hours of network prime-time fare during the 2000-01 season and compared its findings with its last prime-time study in 1998. Among the scenes the authors found troubling:
* One student bites the ear off another and spits it onto a teacher during a fight on Fox’s “Boston Public.”
* Nude females streak and skinny-dip on UPN’s “Seven Days.”
* Two men engage in a homosexual kiss on The WB’s “Dawson’s Creek.”
Though sexual scenes dropped 17 percent, references to sex were more graphic than a few years ago and included discussion of oral sex, genitalia and pornography.
The watchdog blasted UPN for airing the highest number of “offensive” incidents per hour, including the most profanity and violence. UPN is the only network without a standards-and-practices department.
“At UPN, we strongly believe in the viewers’ right to make an informed choice about what they watch, which is why we voluntarily and clearly label every UPN program with a content rating,” the network said.
The senators praised CBS for airing the fewest explicit scenes per hour. Said CBS spokesman Chris Ender: “We’re always conscious of being good corporate citizens.”
Nevertheless, the Eye Network has no plans to adopt a family viewing hour. “We understand the concerns, but we think we’re doing a pretty good job of policing ourselves,” he said.
Meanwhile, CBS said its decision to move “Big Brother 2” from its 8 p.m. (ET) hour to a 9 p.m. time slot starting Tuesday was not designed to sidestep possible criticism about the program and its accessibility to kids.
“The timing was purely coincidental,” Mr. Ender said, adding the shift was made because the show is unpredictable and might not be appropriate for younger viewers. The 9 p.m. start will also apply to “Big Brother” episodes on Thursdays and Saturdays.
NBC was faulted for airing more sex than any other network, with ABC a close second.
“Lawmakers like Sen. Lieberman and Sen. Brownback jawboning these issues is very important-and believe me we pay attention to it,” NBC lobbyist Bob Okun said.
But he said NBC has to face marketplace realities and must counterprogram against other networks, cable and satellite TV channels. NBC hasn’t dismissed the idea of a family hour but hasn’t endorsed it either.
The PTC declared Fox the third-worst network offender and described “Boston Public” as “probably the most objectionable family-hour show.” The WB was in the middle of the pack, and ABC was the second-cleanest network overall, according to the researchers.
Fox said in a statement that its programming is reviewed by standards and practices executives who select ratings for each show.
An ABC spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
“At some point you have to ask, `How much worse can it get? How low can it go?’ Unfortunately it appears as if the networks are scrambling to find out,” Sen. Brownback said.
Sen. Lieberman said all he and his supporters want is the first hour of prime time to be devoted to family-friendly fare suitable for all ages. He said CBS has proven with its hit show “Touched by an Angel” that family-oriented programming can be a moneymaker as well.