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FCC Suggests Framework for Regulating Violence on TV

Congress could regulate violence on cable, satellite and broadcast television without violating the First Amendment, the Federal Communications Commission said in a report released Wednesday.

The report, which had been requested by Congress, contains suggestions for action by lawmakers, but it stops short of making specific recommendations.

A correlation exists between bloodshed on television and violence in real life, the commission said.

Concluding that "exposure to violent programming can be harmful to children," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wrote in a statement accompanying the report that "Congress could provide parents more tools to limit their children's exposure to violent programming in a constitutional way."

Among those tools, Congress could require cable companies to sell their programming on a per-channel or family tier basis, rather than only in pre-bundled packages.

As for broadcast television, the report cites Supreme Court precedent to suggest the agency could regulate violent programming much as it regulates sexual content and profanity — by barring it from being aired during hours when children may be watching. Or it could create a family-viewing hour.

It also says that technology intended to help parents shield their children from objectionable programming, such as the V-chip, is inadequate.

The report indicates that Congress could develop a definition of excessively violent programming but that such language "needs to be narrowly tailored in conformance with judicial precedent."

Martin has been joined in his push for cleaning up the airwaves by Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, who wrote: "It is not an easy challenge to develop rules that pass constitutional muster, but given what amounts to a public health crisis at hand, I believe it is a challenge that must be met."

Word of the report, which has been circulating around the agency for months, has alarmed executives in the broadcast and cable industries as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Their concern is how the agency would define violent programming and what would qualify for sanction — for example, how violent news programming would be treated. Martin suggested Wednesday there may be a special exception for news, saying the context and content of the message should be considered.

The ACLU had harsh words for the report, calling the FCC's recommendations "political pandering," in a statement attributed to Caroline Fredrickson, the organization's director of its legislative office in Washington.

"There are some things the government does well, but deciding what is aired and when on television is not one of them," she said.

Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, while approving the report in part and concurring in part, said he was disappointed with it because of a lack of clarity.

"We punted to Congress the difficult questions that Congress asked us to answer," he said, such as coming up with a definition for excessively violent programming.

The report was requested by a bipartisan group of 39 House members nearly three years ago and is well past its Jan. 1, 2005, due date.

The lawmakers asked 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."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he will file legislation that may incorporate some of the commission's recommendations.