A new draft report from the Federal Communications Commission says the government may be able to limit violence on TV in a way that does not violate the U.S. Constitution.
The long-overdue report suggests Congress could craft a law that would let the agency regulate violent programming much like it regulates sexual content and profanity — by barring it from being aired during hours when children may be watching, for example.
In one instance, at the beginning of the current season of Fox Network’s hit show “24,” hero Jack Bauer chomped on the neck of the terrorist holding him captive, then spit out the blood and made his escape.
Citing studies, the draft report says there is evidence that violent programming can lead to “short-term aggressive behavior in children,” according to an agency source, who asked not to be identified because the commission has not approved the report.
The report also suggests that cable and satellite TV could be subjected to an “a la carte” regime that would let viewers choose their channels.
Requested by Congress, it is sure to alarm executives in the broadcast and cable industry, members of the creative community and First Amendment advocates.
The draft was circulating among the agency’s five commissioners, sources said.
A bipartisan group of 39 House members nearly three years ago requested a report by Jan. 1, 2005, discussing 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.”
The FCC’s authority is limited to licensed broadcast stations. Content on cable networks that is not available over the airwaves is beyond the agency’s reach.
To address cable, the report suggests that Congress could draft legislation that would mandate a “family tier” of programming or a form of channel choice known as a la carte.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has long supported such a proposal, as has Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, but the cable industry has beaten back a la carte legislation in the past.
Creating a regulatory regime to deal with television violence would present a host of challenges for the agency, critics say. First, the FCC or Congress would have to define “excessive violence.”
The agency is considering several possibilities, including one devised by Morality in Media Inc., a group whose motto is “promoting decent society through law.”
Even if a definition can be devised, more problematic is the issue of how to determine what is worthy of sanction and what is not.
“Will it count on the news?” asked Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media. “Will it count on newsmagazines like ‘60 Minutes’ and ‘Dateline’? What about hockey games when the gloves come off and people start punching each other?”
Mr. Rintels said such rules would create “huge gray areas of censored content.”
Meanwhile, the agency is fighting challenges in two federal appeals courts regarding how it is enforcing its rules on broadcast decency.
Broadcasters are expected to object strenuously to any anti-violence regulation, but have been skittish in going on the record. The National Association of Broadcasters declined a request for comment, as did CBS Inc. Scott Grogin, senior vice president for corporate communications at Fox Broadcasting, also declined comment because the report has not been released.
Generally, broadcasters and cable companies say parents should take responsibility for what their children watch and take advantage of blocking technology, such as the V-chip, and are sponsoring a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to teach them how to use it.
As for a la carte, Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, 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 say their shows are becoming edgier to keep up with increasingly violent fare on cable networks.