'Stifled' FCC report has Boxer looking to fight

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WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara Boxer is gaining a reputation on the Senate Commerce Committee. The California Democrat likes to bear down on witnesses. Her demeanor on the committee and the fact that she and the chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, aren't best buddies are two of the things that keep this job fun.

Boxer was at her feisty best recently when she jumped all over FCC chairman Kevin Martin. It seems something happened to an FCC report that said locally owned stations air more news than stations where owners live elsewhere. "I think there's work that's been done, and it's been stifled, and I don't know who stifled it," she said.

Martin defended himself by pointing his finger at his predecessor, former chairman Michael Powell, who also said he never saw the study. It really doesn't matter who did or did not do the stifling, as it has now become political fodder in the debate over media regulations that determine who should own what and where they can own it.

To Boxer and other opponents of easing the nation's media ownership regulations, the alleged decision to destroy the study proves that the commission was never serious about an objective decision on the rules. To me, Boxer's comments had a transportive power.

Suddenly it wasn't 2006. It was 1972, and I was watching "All in the Family." I was watching the "Edith's Problem" episode when the great Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker was going through menopause and turned the tables on the equally great Carroll O'Connor, telling Archie to "stifle himself."

Ahhhh. Those were the days. Just three networks, and adult TV meant Archie, Edith, Gloria and Meathead. Now the chairs Archie and Edith sat in each week are ensconced in the Smithsonian, and adult TV means someone eats bugs, gets whacked or demonstrates their total inability to carry a tune.

Norman Lear's signature show set at 704 Hauser Street in Queens really did break ground. An argument can easily be made that if it wasn't for "All in the Family" then, we wouldn't have "The Sopranos" today.

Not only did the show feature language that was more real than anything on TV, it was also the first major television series to feature a flushing toilet and may have been the first to carry an advisory for content.

"All in the Family" also became a touchstone in the legal battles surrounding the FCC's attempt to control television as Norman Lear led the fight against the so-called family hour. The guilds, Lear and a handful of celebrity colleagues sued, claiming the gentleman's agreement over when adult fare could be aired unfairly cut the show's audience.

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, then CBS president Arthur R. Taylor championed the family hour, but he could only institute it if his competitors went along. Dick Wiley, the Republican chairman of the FCC at the time, pressured the networks to adopt the family hour. In order to avoid intercorporate collusion charges, they felt the National Association of Broadcasters could best orchestrate the effort through its self-regulatory Industry Code of Practices.

U.S. District Court Judge Warren Ferguson didn't buy it. He decided that, while the concept might have merit, the FCC acted improperly by privately persuading the three network representatives to back the NAB's family-hour provisions.

Now, in a plot twist worthy of Lear himself, Democrats like Boxer are among those who seek to keep in place many of the regulations that were instituted by Republicans like Wiley. With apologies to Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, I guess we really didn't know who we were back then, or right now.
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