Commentary

Titillating TV and Creeping Censorship

By Adam D. Thierer
March 23, 2004

An important and quite troubling shift may be developing regarding the way lawmakers regulate mass media in America. During recent congressional hearings on broadcast television and radio violations of Federal Communications Commission indecency standards, several lawmakers hinted that they believed federal censorship efforts should extend beyond just licensed TV and radio operators to unlicensed media sources, such as cable, satellite and Internet providers.

Without rehashing the whole Janet Jackson incident during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, it seems reasonable to question the wisdom of Congress getting involved in regulating “pay TV” programs. Subscription-based media providers have not faced such regulatory scrutiny in the past because they are not licensed by the FCC, and therefore receive strict First Amendment protection.

But some lawmakers seemingly feel that should change. For example, during recent hearings, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) suggested that Congress needs to create a “code of conduct” for television that encompasses cable and satellite TV. And Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin both suggested that cable and satellite companies should offer a “family-friendly” tier of programming. Presumably, they’d like some say about what is included in that package. Lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered an alternative regulatory approach that would force cable and satellite companies to instead offer every channel on an “a la carte” basis to apparently help consumers weed out channels that were not family friendly. In essence, this would make program “tiers” on cable and satellite systems illegal and likely drive up the cost of individual channels now in the “basic tier” on most networks.

In one sense, the argument for censorship parity is powerful. After all, viewers don’t really make a distinction between over-the-air and pay TV sources anymore. More than 85 percent of households currently subscribe to either cable or satellite television services, and traditional broadcast networks are now just a few of the options we can flip through in our 500-channel universe. So why should older broadcast television networks be the only ones taking the regulatory heat?

On the other hand, the downside of regulatory parity is obvious: Congress and the FCC would start censoring pay TV providers and programs. Consider what that might mean for cable networks like HBO or Showtime, which produce popular, but admittedly controversial programs such as The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Queer as Folk, and The L Word. Should Congress or the FCC really have the right to regulate such programs, or even when they are shown?

Moreover, what happened to common sense and personal responsibility in this country? After all, these cable and satellite boxes and personal computers and Internet connections didn’t just magically appear in our homes; we put them there! Once we voluntarily bring these devices into our home we shouldn’t ask government to assume the bulk of the responsibility for then minding our children. Those of us who are parents understand that raising a child in today’s modern media marketplace is a daunting task at times. But that should not serve as an excuse for inviting Uncle Sam in to play the role of surrogate parent for us and the rest of the public without children.

Luckily, Congress doesn’t have that right to censor pay TV today thanks to the existence of the First Amendment and America’s strong tradition of freedom of speech and expression. Lawmakers have never been able to censor supposedly “indecent” material in newspapers, magazines, books, cable, satellite or the Internet the same way they have broadcast television. Courts will simply have none of it.

But the danger of back-door censorship still lurks with the growing convergence of media providers and technologies. In the future, traditional broadcasters might deliver their shows directly to consumers via cable, satellite, or even Internet video streaming. If they do so, even more regulatory pressure will be brought to bear on these private operators. On the other hand, given the traditional court-based protections for these other media providers, media convergence could result in less censorship for everyone, including traditional broadcast stations.

So stay tuned, this fight is just getting started. One way or another, Ms. Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” might just end up ushering in a veritable revolution in federal censorship policy.

Adam Thierer is director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute.