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Editiorial: FCC Chairman Must Reorder His Priorities

Mar 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

A little more than a month ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin proposed fining ABC and its stations $1.43 million for airing an episode of “NYPD Blue” in which an actress bared her buns momentarily. Last week, the FCC backed off plans to force TV stations to air more advertising about the 2009 transition to digital TV signals.
What do these seemingly unrelated decisions have to do with one another? Superficially, not much. But they provide a potent illustration of Mr. Martin squandering opportunities, as his agency has done so many times.
In a one-month period, as illustrated by the above examples, the FCC failed to apply pressure to ensure that the transition to digital signals goes as smoothly as possible. Instead, Mr. Martin poured agency resources into a curious battle to protect Americans from seeing a lady’s bottom.
Making himself the man who ensured that no Americans lost their TV reception during the switch would be something Mr. Martin could claim as his legacy when he leaves office, which almost certainly will be next year. While Mr. Martin doesn’t have complete jurisdiction over the project, he could use the FCC’s bully pulpit to keep it on track.
Instead, last week, the press reported the resignation of the head of the agency distributing vouchers that will help poor Americans buy converter boxes for their sets. This is not a sign of a robust digital transition machine in Washington.
But Mr. Martin did fire another shot over the bows of the broadcast networks and station groups, reminding them that their programming has to conform to some invisible moral line in the sand.
TelevisionWeek’s position on the FCC chairman’s indecency jihad is well established: First, it’s almost impossible to make rules that will provide meaningful guidance to broadcasters that help them avoid airing material the government deems indecent. Second, parents are in a better position to protect children from racy programming than the FCC.
So what is the FCC chairman thinking?
Mr. Martin, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, scores big points with certain elements of his party’s political base when he goes after naughty programming on TV. And the downside risk to him of people losing their TV in the digital transition is minimal: The blame will be spread among several government agencies and the media companies, and he’ll be long gone from his post.
While it’s clear why Mr. Martin would do what he has done, we urge him to reconsider his priorities.

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