TV violence report Martinized

FCC chairman delivers a la carte assessment

“In the Matter of Violent Television Programming and Its Impact on Children” is the extremely official and seemingly objective title of a recently released Federal Communications Commission report, but something like “FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin’s Guide to Solving TV Content Problems” might have been more apt.

Why? Because while every FCC report solicits factual data and expert opinion of some kind, veteran agency watchers will tell you that reports are ultimately more a reflection of the existing chairman’s policies than anything else.

“It would be going too far to say the chairman determines the conclusions of a report, but I don’t know of any report that hasn’t gone the way the chairman at the time wanted it,” says former senior FCC official and longtime observer Blair Levin.

The TV violence report differs from this tradition perhaps only by degree, in that the final version of the report is said to bear little if any resemblance to a preliminary internal draft.

The general process of an FCC report: The relevant one of the commission’s seven bureaus initiates work on the subject (the media bureau handled the TV violence report). The person in charge of the bureau, and thus in charge of the report, tends to be the chairman’s trusted appointee.

A “Notice of Inquiry” goes out, soliciting comments — i.e., data and opinion — to be placed in a public docket. Bureau staffers will also likely research pertinent records or case law.

What follows is “a lot of back-and-forth,” an FCC official says, between the bureau head and the chairman’s point-person on the subject or issue. The first draft of the report and its findings then go directly to the chairman, who makes the first “cut” or edit.

The four other commissioners will also have input, and the FCC official says the whole process is essentially one of “consensus-building.” But as another agency observer says, “The chairman has an awful lot of influence to push in a particular direction.”

Indeed, adds Levin, “The chairman has lots more control than the other commissioners. It’s all likely to go in the direction the chairman wants.”

Consider that Michael Powell — Martin’s predecessor, who favored market-oriented solutions over regulation — commissioned a report on the economic feasibility of a la carte subscription models for pay TV. The report concluded it was not feasible. After Martin became chairman, he commissioned a new report on the same subject — without soliciting any new data or opinion. New conclusion? A la carte subs, which Martin has long favored, were indeed feasible.

The TV violence report suggests several possible ways, many of them voluntary on the part of the industry, for reducing children’s exposure to videoed mayhem. There are only two regulatory solutions put forth. One is — surprise! — a la carte subs. The other is time-channeling, or barring “excessively violent” content from airing when kids might be watching. This, too, happens to be another of Martin’s older pet initiatives.

These two mandates are all the more remarkable given that in the hundreds of pages of comments filed into the public docket, not once is there mention of a la carte or time-channeling as a possible remedy or approach.

The agency official notes that while an FCC report does have to reflect comments received, it doesn’t necessarily have to be dictated or driven by them. True, but the TV violence report shows an extremely selective reflection of the comments.

The only point substantively disputed by the pro- and anti-regulation factions in the comments involved the value or reliability of previous studies on the effects of media violence. As one expert who read all the comments says, “The studies can be read any way you want to read them.”

The FCC acknowledged as much in noting in its published report that previous studies prove no conclusive link between media violence and violent behavior. However, as justification for taking action against media violence, the agency cited a 2001 U.S. surgeon general’s report that said media violence can influence children’s aggressive behavior at least in the short term.

This is even more remarkable than a la carte subs, given that this same surgeon general’s report goes on to conclude that “many questions remain regarding the short- and long-term effects of media violence, especially on violent behavior… it is not yet possible to describe accurately how much exposure, of what types, for how long, at what ages, for what types of children, or in what types of settings will predict violent behavior in adolescents and adults.”

The report also leaned on a joint statement made in 2000 by several professional medical, psychiatric and pediatric orgs, essentially endorsing the media-violence-causes-kids-to-be-violent line. But as First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere has noted, less than a year later one of the American Medical Assn.’s board of trustees — which inked the joint statement — admitted in a panel discussion that “there were political reasons for signing on. We’re looking for a champion in Congress that will be willing in the long run to back our desire for funding of comprehensive school health in this country.”

Even more telling was the first draft of the TV violence report, said to have been completed almost a year ago. An expert familiar with the contents of that draft said it cited the elusiveness of any reliable studies or research and noted that numerous state courts had already stuck down attempts to regulate violent videogames, which, because they directly involve kids in simulated violence, can be argued to be more dangerous than dramatized TV violence. As a result, the draft centered on market-oriented approaches to the issue.

In short, its findings and reasoning were the exact opposite of the final report. Then again, the FCC first embarked on the TV violence report in 2004, when Powell was still chairman.

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