WASHINGTON – Television networks are free to sprinkle their programs with shootings, slashings, torture and other gore because the government has no regulatory authority over violent programming.
But a draft report being circulated at the Federal Communications Commission says Congress can change that, without violating the First Amendment.
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 general, what the commission's report says is that there is strong evidence that shows violent media can have an impact on children's behavior and there are some things that can be done about it," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Thursday.
The issue is bipartisan. Martin, a Republican, gave a joint interview to The Associated Press with Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps.
"The pressure to do something on this is building right now," Copps said, noting that TV violence comes up regularly during media ownership hearings he conducts across the country. "People really feel strongly about this issue all across this land. This is not a red state or a blue state issue."
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, a measure long supported by Martin.
"We can't just deal with the three or four broadcast channels — we have to be looking at what's on cable as well" Martin said.
The report cites studies that suggest violent programming can lead to "short-term aggressive behavior in children," according to an agency source who described the report and asked not to be named because it has not yet been approved.
The recommendations are sure to alarm executives in the broadcast and cable industries, members of the creative community and First Amendment advocates.
"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."
"The fact that it's difficult should not take this issue off the table," Copps said, when asked about the potential difficulty.
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."
Broadcasters are expected to object strenuously to any anti-violence regulatory regime, but have been skittish in going on the record.
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. 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, 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, he said. 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, Copps and Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate are expected to vote in favor. Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was not immediately available for comment. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell is the potential wild card.
McDowell, a father of young children, issued a statement saying he is "deeply concerned about the effects of television violence" but added the "first line of defense rests with parents."