Broadcast regulations: A big chill

Guest column

Following Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” the House and Senate have been working feverishly on legislation designed to, as one congressman put it, “reclaim America’s airwaves for decency.”

Personally, I’m not convinced that further broadcast content regulation is necessary. One thing is clear, however: If our current national dialogue about decency is to make any sense at all, broadcast networks (which air thousands of hours of unobjectionable programming for every second of content that might inadvertently cross the line) must not be confused with a few “shock jocks” of radio who have drawn so much government attention.

The average home today receives more than 100 television channels. Perhaps 14 of these might be over-the-air broadcast stations, including a couple of Spanish-language broadcasters. These licensees take seriously their obligation to refrain from airing obscene, indecent or profane programming.

It is not just broadcast licensees who should be concerned. Make no mistake, the American public will bear the brunt of this legislation, which is just vague and punitive enough to cause talented writers, producers and actors to flee broadcast television.

The legislation before Congress will require broadcasters and individual performers alike to weigh every move they make in the fear of incurring a fine or triggering an indecency hearing. At a time when broadcast and cable channels are just a click away on the remote control, it makes no sense to exacerbate the regulatory burden imposed on broadcasters.

Another serious problem is the standards are so murky that it’s impossible to self-regulate with any confidence. We recently cut from “ER” a fleeting image of a partially dressed 80-year-old woman on a gurney. We did so not because we thought it was in any way parallel to the Jackson-Timberlake fiasco. It was an example of what can happen when the government is empowered to enforce vague and unclear standards. Such discretionary power can force broadcasters to play it safe at the high cost of sacrificing creative integrity. This is precisely the kind of pernicious “chilling effect” that the courts have found to be constitutionally suspect.

Viewers of NBC and other broadcast television networks deserve to see the full creative vision of talented producers like Dick Wolf and John Wells, who are responsible for some of television’s best shows — as reined in when necessary not by politicians applying vague rules, but by the broadcasters (and their viewers and advertisers, who vote with their eyes and dollars).

By the same token, viewers deserve and expect to watch news events unfold in real time — not delayed and edited by anxious TV standards professionals forced to anticipate the judgments of government censors.

Do we really want to enter an era in which an inadvertent curse word aired during live coverage of a breaking news story would result in fines and possible license revocations? It would be a loss to everyone if the high standards of news organizations like NBC News were sacrificed in the effort to minimize the real risks that apparently are now part of any live broadcast.

Some material has no place on broadcast radio or television. But the federal government needs to act with caution and restraint when it comes to exercising its powers in this area. The vast majority of broadcast licensees do an excellent job of knowing where and when to draw the line. Errors of judgment are rare.

Ultimately, we have much less to fear from obscene, indecent or profane content than we do from an overzealous government willing to limit First Amendment protections and censor creative expression. That would be indecent.

Wright is vice chairman of General Electric and chairman and CEO of NBC. This column first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 19.

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