FCC Report Suggests Possible Regulation of TV Violence, Allowing 'A La Carte' Cable Choice

Beaten up and strapped to a chair, once again it looks like the end for Jack Bauer, the hero of Fox Network's hit show "24." Using his wits (and his teeth), Bauer goes for the jugular — literally.

In the scene, Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, chomps on the neck of the terrorist holding him captive; he spits the blood out and makes his escape.

Broadcasters are free to televise such cringe-inducing scenes of violence with relative impunity in the U.S. But a new draft report from the Federal Communications Commission suggests the government may be able to limit violence on TV in a way that does not violate the 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.

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.

Citing studies, the draft 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 yet approved the report.

The report, requested by Congress, 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, R-Ariz., 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, say critics. First, the FCC or Congress would have to define excessive violence. The agency is mulling 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 news magazines like 60 Minutes and Dateline? What about hockey games when the gloves come off and people start punching each other?"

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 indecency.

Broadcasters are expected to object strenuously to any anti-violence regulatory regime, 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 yet been released.

Generally, broadcasters and cable companies say parents should take responsibility for what their children watch and take advantage of blocking technology, like 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 claim their shows are becoming edgier to keep up with increasingly violent fare on cable networks.

Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the Parents Television Council, finds these arguments unconvincing.

He said the industry's campaign to make parents the violence police is "purely designed to convince the Congress that they (programmers) are being responsible."

The parental blocking technologies are insufficient due to a flawed television rating system. As for the argument that cable is pressuring broadcasters to be edgier, Isett believes that's nonsense.

"Virtually all content is owned by six major media conglomerates," he said. "They own what's on cable."

The commission could vote on the report at any time. Martin and fellow Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate are both expected to vote in favor as is Democrat Michael Copps. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell is the potential wild card. Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was not immediately available for comment.

McDowell, a father of young children, issued a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday, saying he is "deeply concerned about the effects of television violence" but added the "first line of defense rests with parents."

"I look forward to examining the legal and constitutional implications of potential additional regulation in this arena as my colleagues and I consider the recommendations we should make to Congress," he added.