‘Voluntary’ code floats

NAB crowd Copps nasty plea

WASHINGTON — If FCC commissioner and vocal big media foe Michael Copps had his way, Washington’s current anti-smut crusade would target soap operas and advertisements as well as more general broadcast programming.

Copps said he was recently channel-surfing in the middle of the day and was alarmed when he came across some racy soap opera content that aired during a time when a child could be watching after school.

“It was pretty steamy for the middle of the afternoon,” Copps commented without elaborating about the nature of the scene or the specific soap opera program where it appeared.

Copps, a Democrat, made the comments after speaking at a conference of 350 industry representatives organized by the National Assn. of Broadcasters in Washington. The summit was closed to the press.

FCC topper Michael Powell later told reporters that the agency is not considering scrutinizing soap operas or advertisements, noting that he would need to discuss the matter with Copps.

Although the “responsible programming” summit was well attended, Copps warned that politicking alone will not prevent Congress and the FCC from forcing the industry to clean up its act.

“I was impressed that they turned out as many people as they did,” Copps said. “But the proof is in the pudding, in what happens to the airwaves, if they do something to clean it up.”

Powell also defended Washington’s current crudity crackdown, claiming that it is not a “prude over-reaction.”

“Just because a debate is robust doesn’t mean it’s problematic,” he said. “The debate should be measured by the actions of the government.”

The NAB planned the meeting in response to public and political pressure for over-the-air radio and TV broadcasters to ditch dirty programming after Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast-baring spectacle. Congress is moving quickly to pass legislation dramatically boosting FCC fines for indecency violations from $27,500 to $500,0000 per infraction and imposing license revocation hearings for repeat offenders.

The full House passed the bill recently and the full Senate is expected to hold a vote sometime soon. The FCC announced several large fines recently and told broadcasters that virtually any use of the f-word was inappropriate for over-the-air radio and television.

After the summit, NAB topper Eddie Fritts called the gathering a much-needed “family discussion” on the topic of indecency. While the members of the NAB did not endorse any particular proposal as a potential remedy, Fritts said, they discussed a number of options. They include devising a voluntary industry code of conduct or simply loose guidelines on what constitutes indecent content.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who authored the Senate bill, addressed the industry at the summit, chiding the media professionals for arguing that free speech is under attack in Washington.

“It is important to remember that those using the public airwaves do not have an absolute right to broadcast anything they want,” he told the crowd.

In Brownback’s latest missive to Viacom topper Mel Karmazin on Wednesday, Brownback upbraided the exec for keeping Howard Stern on the air after what he characterized as a blatantly indecent broadcast Feb. 24.

During congressional hearings on the indecency uproar, several lawmakers called on broadcasters to resurrect a voluntary industry code of conduct, which provided content and advertising guidelines in the 1970s. The code, however, did not pass judicial muster and was jettisoned in the late ’70s after the Justice Dept. went to court to abolish it in order to allow more advertising to be sold.

The broadcasting industry is under increasing pressure to self-regulate, and bringing back the code is one idea under discussion. Others suggested that any code the industry produced right now would not be voluntary and would be difficult to institute, since the industry is simply following congressional marching orders.

“Any ‘voluntary’ code of conduct would not be truly voluntary because it was initiated by government at the point of a gun, so it will have that baggage,” said Patrick Maines, prexy of the Media Institute, a Washington think tank funded in part by the four major nets.

During a debate at the summit, Maines exhorted his colleagues “to fight like hell for the First Amendment.” He cautioned industry critics to approach regulating TV content more carefully, warning that the courts could throw out the new legislation and government’s ability to enforce indecency standards altogether.

“This is not the end of the game,” Maines said.

Brent Bozell, prexy of the Parents Television Council and a leading critic of broadcast content, added that the TV rating system was imposed under pressure from Washington, adding that it’s virtually ineffective. “It’s the fox guarding the hen house,” he remarked.

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