FCC regulating the past

Marketplace Staff Jun 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If I were to say Janet Jackson, you might think Super Bowl. Or wardrobe malfunction. But I promise you CBS and every other broadcaster in the country thinks of something else. The Federal Communications Commission. And how much a little indecency might wind up costing. The House took up a bill today that will let the FCC boost its fines to $325,000 for each offense. Writer and commentator Rob Long says the FCC has too much brawn and not enough brains.

ROB LONG: The FCC has been tasked, since ancient times, with protecting the nation’s airwaves – the people’s airwaves.

That means protecting us from things like the f-word and gauzy images of teenage sex orgies, but not, I guess, from bigger indecencies like that really lousy sitcom, “Joey.”

The trouble is the idea of a broadcast network today has only vestigal meaning. There aren’t many people left these days who get their TV entertainment free by aiming a pair of rabbit ears at the family-room window.

These days, most people get their entertainment from coaxial cable, or a satellite dish, meaning they pay for it.

So, for most of us, all of those objectionable and indecent things are available on TV channels just a few clicks away from the ones that are regulated by the FCC, on the same TV set, while we’re sitting on the same couch.

For the modern viewer, in 2006, there’s no noticeable barrier between a pseudo-teenage pseudo-sex orgy on CBS direct TV channel 384, and a pretty explicit girl-girl makeout scene on CBS-owned Showtime Networks cable channel 500. To which the only logical response is, I gotta watch that show.

The only difference between the two shows is that one of them doesn’t share CBS’s regulated broadcast heritage.

The FCC’s indecency fines are perfectly reasonable for 1981. But today, the agency just seems like Wile E. Coyote, haplessly trailing the technology Roadrunner.

But what do you expect from something called the Federal Communications Commission, except belated, outdated and irrelevant regulations? I mean, when you see the words “Federal” or “Commission,” you know you’re in trouble.

The Federal Election Commission is still desperately trying to figure out this whole Internet fund-raising thingy which, thanks to e-mail, websites and blogs, independent groups do with traceless ease.

And the Securities and Exchange Commission struggles daily with the concept of investment banking, sell-side research, and the pretty ludicrous idea of a “Chinese wall,” (and we all know how effective those are).

Meanwhile, Internet chat rooms and stock-picking newsletters buzz and crackle with insider tips that are illegal if accurate, and fraudulent if not.

But 20 years from now, trust me, they’ll have it all figured out. Because that’s what they’re good at. Regulating the past.

RYSSDAL: Rob Long is a Hollywood writer and a contributor to National Review.

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