New FCC Chair Warns Cable; Congressman Advocates Jail Time For Indecency

By | April 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM

In his first speech as head of the Federal Communication Commission, Chairman Kevin Martin strongly suggested on Tuesday that the cable industry clean up its act and shield children from indecent content.

But Martin’s speech at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s convention in San Francisco was overshadowed by a fiery talk by Wisconsin republican congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who said he’d rather see indecent broadcasters thrown in jail.

“When I first arrived at the commission, we received a few hundred complaints per year from parents,” Martin told conventioneers, according to a San Jose Mercury News report. “The next year, we received a few thousand. And the following year, we received 10,000, and last year we received a million complaints… I think what you’re seeing is an environment in which consumers and parents are increasingly concerned.” The chairman strongly suggested that the cable industry take pre-emptive action to allay the fears of parents worried that their kids will see indecent material on cable TV.

“I think this is an opportunity for the cable industry to try to address it, not just speak to me but to speak to the consumers and parents,” Martin said. Among his proposals were packages of family-friendly channels, a “family television hour” and companies offering more blocking technologies. Congress is currently mulling legislation that would allow the FCC to monitor basic cable.

Due to its pay status, cable TV has not been regulated by the government to date, and operators said at the convention that they have not worked hard enough to let parents know about their options when it comes to shielding children from racy content. In a speech last year, Martin said, “Certainly, broadcasters and cable operators have significant First Amendment rights, but these rights are not without boundaries. They are limited by law. They also should be limited by good taste.”

But when asked if the FCC would take a stronger hand in regulation, Martin said he answers to Congress.

“It is the Congress that tries to determine whether or not the rules should be applied to cable,” he said.

That seemed to be the cue for influential Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (WI), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to tell the attendees that he would “prefer using the criminal process rather than the regulatory process,” to clean up broadcast standards, according to a Reuters report.

Sensenbrenner said the current process of the FCC fining broadcasters who air indecent material is inefficient because it can also penalize those who are trying to clean up their airwaves.

“People who are in flagrant disregard should face a criminal process rather than a regulatory process,” the House chairman said, according to Reuters. “That is the way to go. Aim the cannon specifically at the people committing the offenses, rather than the blunderbuss approach that gets the good actors. The people who are trying to do the right thing end up being penalized the same way as the people who are doing the wrong thing.”

Sensenbrenner did not specify how he would criminalize indecent broadcasts and it is not yet clear how much, if any, support his proposal might have.

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