Sen. Rockefeller’s Agenda May Up the Ante on TV Issues

Dec 21, 2008  •  Post A Comment

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee could mean a Senate far more active on broadcast television issues, industry executives and public-interest groups say.
But media executives yearning for a drastic change in terms of how the government regulates TV content may find the senator’s positions on some obscenity issues eerily familiar. And they may find some of Sen. Rockefeller’s ambitions to curb TV violence disconcerting.
Senate Democrats last week formally tapped Sen. Rockefeller to take over the main Senate committee handling broadcast issues. He replaces Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who becomes chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Rockefeller has demonstrated more interest in media issues than Sen. Inouye. The Obama administration’s interest in media issues and the Democrats’ newfound strength in the Senate may make it easier for the party to enact legislation on media issues.
Sen. Rockefeller in a statement last week said the committee’s first priority would be actions to revive the economy. He offered no specifics on plans for taking up media issues. He declined to comment for this article.
Sen. Rockefeller is a champion of expanding broadband availability, and in the current session he joined with then-Sen. Barack Obama to co-sponsor a resolution that called for creating a nationwide next-generation broadband network by 2015. That goal is expected to be included in an economic stimulus plan the president-elect is crafting to present to Congress.
The West Virginia senator’s position on obscenity may be aligned with the current administration, whose Federal Communications Commission has tried to censure broadcast networks for airing even fleeting expletives. Sen. Rockefeller sponsored legislation that would require the FCC to “maintain a policy that a single word or image may constitute indecent programming.” He’s also been active in trying to abate TV violence, suggesting the FCC should be given the authority to regulate “excessively violent” content, much as it does indecency.
In June 2007, at a hearing of the committee, he decried the “unconscionable levels of sex” and violence on TV. He said it was time for Congress to act and promised to repeatedly push legislation to limit it “until something happens.”
“Children today are being subjected to an unprecedented level of violent television content that is … coarsening our culture and I fear weakening our society as a whole,” he said at the time.
He attacked an industry public-service campaign promoting use of the V-chip as an alternative to regulating violent content.
“Violent content is cheap to produce. Violent content is profitable. Violent content sells,” said the senator. “To be blunt, the big media companies have placed a greater emphasis on their corporate short-term profits than on the long-term health and well-being of our children.”
Dan Isett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, said Sen. Rockefeller has shown a clear concern about content.
“He has proved time and time again that he is deeply concerned about the content issues as it relates to TV programming, and we would expect those issues to be teed up in a greater way,” said Mr. Isett.
“I would expect there to be more hearings about media violence, especially given recent studies suggesting there is a correlation” between depictions of violence and violent acts, he added.
Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a group that is fighting against media consolidation and for Net neutrality, says he is hopeful for the new year.
“We are looking forward to an active Commerce Committee,” Mr. Scott said. “If he looks at the president-elect’s agenda on media and telecom issues, he will promote an active agenda.”
Mr. Scott predicted the committee would tackle Net neutrality, which seeks to ensure that some content providers don’t get faster Internet pipes than others. Consumer groups want Congress or the FCC to ban Internet providers from giving favored content providers a faster path to consumers’ desktops.
Broadcasting industry lobbyists declined to go on record, but said they too expect the committee to be more active under Sen. Rockefeller. They noted that Sen. Rockefeller, besides his criticism of violent content, has supported a unified ratings system for TV, feature films and videogames.
They also noted the law that currently allows satellite companies to rebroadcast TV station signals comes up for renewal next year, and predicted debate over its future will occupy the committee’s time.


  1. The article does not mention the DTV transition. As the governor of a state with a high percentage of over-the-air, antenna-dependent TV viewers, Rockefeller is acutely aware of the political and social impact of disenfranchising of upwards of seven million TV viewers — including vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the disabled, Hispanics, and the poor.
    The recently passed “nightlight” bill gives broadcasters the legal authority to continue their analog signals for an additional 30 days, provided they also provide DTV transition and emergency information. A close reading of the bill reveals nothing that would prevent broadcasters from continuing their full analog feed, provided they also provide DTV info “crawls” or other forms of DTV informational messages.
    The Democratic leadership, in conjunction with the Obama administration and a new FCC chairman, would be wise to delay the shut-off of analog to provide additional time for viewers to get ready for an all-digital TV world. The government coupon program has a backlog of orders to fulfill, and roof-top antennas cannot be easily and safely reaimed in the dead of winter.
    And given the state of the economy, the industry can ill afford the inevitable advertiser demands for “makegoods,” should the premature analog shut-off result in a loss of broadcast audience.
    For more on why the DTV transition period should be extended well beyond Feb. 17th, see:

  2. I have no doubt that Rockefeller has reasonably good intentions, I just hope he doesn’t throw in with the Parents Television Council.
    The PTC has only one agenda, they want TV remade to suit them.
    And what suits them certainly would not entertain me.

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