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NAB Considers Code of Conduct

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Under the gun from federal policymakers, the National Association of Broadcasters last week announced it is forming a task force on “responsible programming” that will consider adoption of an industry code of conduct.
“Broadcasters are committed to a plan of voluntary action to deal with the issue of responsible programming,” said Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO.
The announcement came on the heels of an all-day NAB summit Thursday in Washington on indecent programming at which key lawmakers and top Federal Communications Commission officials urged the industry to adopt a code to crack down on off-color programming.
Broadcasters and some key regulators at the closed-door session made clear that any form of regulation-including a voluntary code-won’t be effective unless it also applies to cable and satellite TV, technologies that are currently exempt from federal indecency regulations.
But Mr. Fritts said the NAB task force is committed to considering a code and “a number of options”-and that the first meeting of the task force would be held during the association’s convention in Las Vegas later this month.
The NAB announcement comes as the Senate prepares to vote on wide-ranging legislation that would raise the cap on indecency fines from $27,500 to $500,000 and regulate violent content on TV, whether it originates on broadcast, pay cable or satellite television.
Pre-emptive Effort
At least some broadcast industry sources are hoping that a voluntary code will show enough good faith by the industry to pre-empt the need for the legislation.
“Given the serious First Amendment concerns surrounding issues related to program content, it is our strong belief that voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation,” Mr. Fritts said.
But even some broadcasters were questioning the ability of NAB to deliver on a code, because a meaningful code is likely to require an antitrust exemption from Congress-and an antitrust exemption would almost certainly be loaded up with a host of other regulatory provisions that the industry won’t be able to accept.
“Anybody with an ax to grind throws an amendment on and the original intent gets sunk,” said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune VP, Washington.
During the summit, Patrick Maines, president of the Media Institute, said he urged the 350 broadcasters in attendance to fight a code, or any other coerced action, in defense of industry First Amendment rights.
“It’s not a slippery slope, it’s a cliff, and they’re on the edge,” Mr. Maines said. “My guess is they’re going to do whatever they can to get the heat off themselves in the short term.”
During the wrap-up press briefing after the summit, Mr. Fritts said the one clear consensus that emerged from the summit was that cable and satellite TV should share the indecency pain.
“There was great concern about cable and satellite,” Mr. Fritts said. “The goal for broadcasters is equal footing in this process.”
But the cable TV industry has already been moving to dodge a new regulatory bullet. Said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association: “The cable industry has developed a comprehensive consumer education campaign to broaden awareness about technology that cable offers to control unwanted content from coming into the home, and that campaign was bolstered by the commitment of leading cable companies to provide free equipment to those customers who don’t already have the ability to block unwanted content.”
Still, NCTA confirmed that Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the ranking minority member on the House telecommunications subcommittee, met with the association’s board last week to discuss concerns about TV violence and indecency.
Rep. Barton, who declined comment on his NCTA session, has made clear that he thinks the cable and satellite TV industries should reconfigure their channels to offer subscribers a basic package of PG material.
In related developments last week:
* FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the agency should review whether TV soap operas are running afoul of agency indecency prohibitions. Mr. Copps said he recently browsed through the soaps and was surprised by the character of some of the fare, particularly considering that children could be in the audience. “It was pretty steamy for the middle of the afternoon,” Mr. Copps said.
The Democratic commissioner also told reporters that he wants the agency to extend its crackdown on indecency to broadcast advertising. But FCC Chairman Michael Powell subsequently told reporters that the agency isn’t planning to pursue either of Mr. Copps’ suggestions.
* During the summit, Mr. Copps said FCC officials and the industry would be wrong to assume that they can “politick” the indecency issue for several months until it disappears.
“Industry and the commission will get passing marks here only insofar as the airwaves really are cleaned up and kept clean,” Mr. Copps said. “While you meet and discuss and move toward, I hope, resolute new industry policies on indecency, I am going to be pressing my colleagues to get on with the job of enforcing the statute, using all the ammunition already in our armory and also putting to immediate use any additional arrows that Congress may provide for our quiver,” he said in the text of his remarks, which he released to reporters.
* In an informal briefing at the summit, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said pending legislation should be amended to extend the crackdown to cable and satellite. “I can see it being added in conference, and I don’t think there would be a lot of objections in the House,” Rep. Stupak said.