TV Indecency Debate Strikes a Sour Note

May 15, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Jack Valenti, former Motion Picture Association of America chief, and Penny Nance, a Federal Communications Commission indecency guru, were supposed to square off in Washington last week in what was expected to be a battle royal over agency regulation of off-color programming.

But an hour before the event Ms. Nance canceled, citing a family emergency, according to the Cato Institute, the event’s sponsor. And the substitute provided by the agency, FCC Chief Economist Leslie Marx, used her time at the podium to promote the purported public benefits of a la carte-letting consumers choose and pay for only the cable programming they want.

Mr. Valenti accused Ms. Marx, who left the session early without responding to questions from the audience, of refusing to debate the indecency issue.

“Being the chief economist at the FCC, I’m not going to be able to give you the detailed response,” Ms. Marx said.

Mr. Valenti, who served as a special assistant to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, said Ms. Marx’s presentation reminded him of how White House aides had advised President Johnson to duck press conference questions he didn’t want to answer by answering questions that hadn’t been asked.

“That’s what Dr. Marx did-answer a question that wasn’t asked,” Mr. Valenti said.

An FCC official, who asked not to be identified by name, responded to Mr. Valenti’s charges by saying that Dr. Marx addressed the topic of consumer control.

“The topic of the discussion was parental power, and Dr. Marx spoke about a number of ways to enhance consumer control over the programming that comes into their homes,” the official said. “So I would disagree with Mr. Valenti. She spoke exactly on the topic as we understood it.”

Observers suggested the move reaffirmed a perception that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has a tin ear for public relations value, which he demonstrated by not holding a press conference as the agency’s chairman until the eve of the first anniversary of his appointment.

Jonathan Rintels, executive director of Hollywood’s Center for Creative Voices in Media, speculated that the FCC was reluctant to debate Mr. Valenti on the indecency issue. “Why defend the indefensible?” he said.

Organizer Disappointed

The session came as a particular disappointment to Roger Pilon, the director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, who told TelevisionWeek last week that he spent months trying to organize the event-and had originally tried to get Mr. Martin to debate Mr. Valenti.

But, according to Mr. Pilon, after weeks of ducking by the agency, he solicited the help of the White House to get the FCC to provide an official for the panel. The agency official eventually promised for the engagement was Ms. Nance, he said.

“This is the worst experience I’ve ever had putting together a program,” Mr. Pilon said in an interview. “They sent an economist to talk about the indecency issue, which they didn’t [talk about]. They just ducked it, and then [Ms. Marx] had to leave early. I’ve put together all-day conferences with less difficulty than this hour-long program with two people,” he said.