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Debate dismays FCC

Agency sends a sub to smut session

Penny Nance, the FCC’s special anti-smut czarina, canceled a debate with Jack Valenti on television indecency at the last minute due to a “family emergency,” according to the agency. An economist was dispatched to cover for her Wednesday.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin — the debate bookers’ first choice — had already begged off due to a scheduling conflict.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, had arranged the debate between former MPAA topper Valenti, who is spearheading an educational campaign to persuade parents that they already have enough controls to block inappropriate TV shows, and Nance, who has urged the industry to do more to help parents who don’t want their children to view certain content.

With the FCC’s recent package of indecency rulings sparking controversy over whether the agency has exceeded its authority, the debate — “Parental Power: TV Indecency, the FCC and the Media’s Response” — portended the first face-to-face showdown on the issue between the two sides.

Leslie Marx, a former Olympic fencer, appeared in Nance’s stead but failed to parry any of Valenti’s points and left the debate early, saying she had to get to an appointment.

Valenti spoke extemporaneously, arguing four basic points: The FCC has no authority to regulate TV content entering a home via cable or satellite; the agency’s indecency rules are “vague, ill-defined and very, very fuzzy”; only parents, not government or interest groups, have the right to decide what their children view on TV; according to polls, 70%-80% of parents agree that inappropriate content exists on TV but the same percentage do not want the government “fixing” the problem.

Indecent content is a personal concern best handled by parents, Valenti concluded.

Marx gave a prepared speech in which she agreed with Valenti about giving parents control over content viewing, but then, echoing previous statements made by Martin, said parents would have much more power if they could buy only the cable or satellite channels that they want: “Why should you have to pay for channels you’re blocking?”

Marx also argued for themed tiers, which, along with a la carte subscriptions, are available in several other countries, she said. “Why shouldn’t American parents have all this, too?”

Valenti said Marx answered none of his points and pressed her to define what constitutes indecent speech.

“As chief economist, I can’t give the detailed response you want,” Marx replied, departing shortly thereafter, leaving Valenti’s First Amendment-related issues hanging in the air.

Getting the FCC to commit to the debate was an ordeal, said Roger Pilon, Cato’s VP for legal affairs and organizer of the event.

“They stalled so much that we had to go to the White House to rattle their cages,” he said. After White House intervention, the agency “kept pushing back” proposed dates. “It took two months to lock this up.”

Pilon said the FCC notified him of Nance’s cancellation “an hour before” the event started. He said Nance had asked him Tuesday about what Valenti was going to say; Pilon in turn asked for a copy of her resume in order to introduce her properly. She never sent it.

“It was just unacceptable all the way around,” Pilon said.

According to an FCC official, Marx had come to the debate focused only on the topic she discussed in her speech. “We were invited to respond to Mr. Valenti very specifically regarding his (campaign) to educate and inform parents about content controls,” the official said. “Dr. Marx has done a lot of work on a la carte and other forms of controls,” hence her selection.

“Dr. Marx very fully and eloquently addressed the topic of enhancing consumer and parental controls over programming.”

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