FCC out to extend its power

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WASHINGTON -- The FCC is considering a report to Congress claiming that the agency can regulate TV violence the same way it regulates indecency if lawmakers give it the authority, sources said Thursday.

A draft of the report is being circulated among commissioners as FCC chairman Kevin Martin attempts to muster the three votes necessary to win its approval, commission sources said. Martin and senior Democratic commissioner Michael Copps are pushing for approval of the report.

Broadcasters are restricted from airing "indecent" material from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. The report contends that the agency could use a similar regulatory regime to regulate violent content.

While the commission might regulate only broadcast television for indecent programming, the report suggests that Congress could allow it to go further and bring cable into the mix. Lawmakers could approve a measure that would mandate an a la carte program system that would allow customers to buy only the programming they desire and eliminate channels with a lot of violence, or the new law could mandate a family tier like the ones offered by many cable and satellite TV providers, sources said.

The report also draws a link between TV violence and "short-term aggressive behavior" in children, sources said.

A bipartisan group of 39 House members nearly three years ago requested a report by Jan. 1, 2005, on whether the FCC could define "exceedingly violent programming that is harmful to children." It also asked whether the agency could regulate such programming "in a constitutional manner."

Any new legislation would face a string of First Amendment problems, including defining violence.

"What this is is government control of creative content, and we have a real problem with that," said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media. "Will it count on news or reality programming? What about sports? In hockey, will it count when the gloves come off? How about documentaries? Or will it only count on scripted TV?"

Broadcasters are expected to object strenuously to any anti-violence regulatory regime but have been skittish about going on the record. The National Association of Broadcasters declined comment, as did CBS Inc. Scott Grogin, senior vp corporate communications at Fox Broadcasting, also declined comment because the report has not yet been released.

Generally, broadcasters and cable companies say parents should take responsibility for what their children watch and take advantage of blocking technology like the V-chip, for which they are sponsoring a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to teach parents how to use it.

As for a la carte, Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., said it is an "unnecessary government intrusion in a vibrant marketplace that would result in higher prices, fewer choices and less diversity in programming."

Broadcasters also claim that their shows are becoming edgier to keep up with increasingly violent fare on cable networks.

If the report gets approved by the commission, it could face a receptive audience in Congress. Several lawmakers from both parties, such as Sens. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., have expressed concern about violent content.

Approval of some version of the report by the commission is likely. Martin and Copps are expected to be joined by commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, who has been an active critic of TV content.

Republican commissioner Robert McDowell and Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein are less predictable. While Adelstein has backed some commission content initiatives, he has moderated his view somewhat as the FCC rulings have become more radical.

McDowell, a father of young children, issued a statement Thursday to the Associated Press saying he is "deeply concerned about the effects of television violence" but added that the "first line of defense rests with parents."

"I look forward to examining the legal and constitutional implications of potential additional regulation in this arena as my colleagues and I consider the recommendations we should make to Congress," he added.
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