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Powell sticks to indecency guns

Org head urges caution on cable regs, cites complaints

LAS VEGAS — FCC chairman Michael Powell was holding the line Tuesday, saying the recent spate of indecency fines doesn’t represent a new direction for his agency but rather increased enforcement in response to a surge of public concern over the issue.

Powell spoke during a breakfast discussion with ABC News journalist Sam Donaldson at the National Assn. of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas.

His comments come a day after a coalition of media companies, Hollywood unions and civil rights groups signed a petition calling on the FCC to reverse its recent decision to fine U2 singer Bono for exclamation of “fucking brilliant” at the 2003 Golden Globes (Daily Variety, April 20).

Defending his decisions, Powell cited the rapid growth in public complaints over indecency, noting that after receiving 14,000 in 2002, the FCC got 250,000 in 2003 and has already received 540,000 indecency complaints this year.

“This increase in enforcement efforts is in direct response to public concern,” he stated.

Powell also expressed little interest in calls from media execs for the FCC to issue explicit guidelines for what is classified as indecent.

While admitting there was a subjective quality to indecency decisions, he said context and tone were important, noting, “I don’t want the government to write a red book of what you can and cannot say.”

Asked about calls from some congressmen, such as House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton, to extend indecency regulations to cable and satellite, Powell said he would enforce any such law but called on Congress to be “exceedingly reluctant” to extend content regulations.

Discussing the transition to digital television, Powell focused primarily on the difficulties of determining when 85% of homes have access to digital signals, adding that the alternative deadline by which broadcasters would have to hand over their analog spectrums, 2006, is irrelevant at the current pace of adoption.

In an afternoon news conference, though, a coalition of public-interest groups called on the FCC to enforce increased regulations on broadcasters in return for what it called a billion-dollar giveaway of the digital spectrum.

In a letter sent to the FCC on April 7, groups including the Alliance for Better Campaigns, Center for Digital Democracy and MoveOn.org urged the FCC to ensure licensed broadcasters provide three hours per week of civil or electoral affairs programming on their most-watched channel and independent programming for at least 25% of the most-watched channel’s primetime schedule.

“On the central question of what digital TV means to the general public, the FCC has a bad case of lockjaw,” said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who joined the coalition along with fellow FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein.

Groups plan to follow up the letter by urging their group members, including MoveOn’s substantial email network, to support their proposal by writing the FCC and local broadcasters and to also work directly with station managers.

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