WASHINGTON — Entertainment and news execs are “living with a great deal of fear” thanks to increased government censorship, Sumner Redstone warned Monday night.
Speaking at the Media Institute’s annual fund-raising banquet, the Viacom and CBS chairman ripped Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for using the cover of indecency rules to usher in censorship in both news reporting and entertainment programming.
“Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a world where, increasingly and alarmingly, a couple thousand form complaints from people condemning shows that they have never watched can result in an indecency fine 10 times higher than it was a year ago,” he told a black-tie aud of Washington media power brokers. “It’s a world where these same form complaints can lead regulators to dictate business models that ultimately will do more harm than good.”
Redstone was on hand to receive the nonprofit research group’s First Amendment Award. Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt picked up the American Horizon Award.
Though lamenting the effects of censorship is not new for media execs, Redstone said recently stepped-up enforcement of indecency rules by the FCC, coupled with a steep increase in fines ordered by Congress, has led to dangerous new levels of self-censorship.
“PBS recently began instructing its producers to self-censor all of its shows, including news programming, after one of its affiliates was slapped with a fine against Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the blues,” he noted.
Fear of “onerous fines” led 11% of CBS affils to preempt the network’s doc on 9/11 firefighters, while Phoenix TV stations dropped coverage of a live memorial for NFL star Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan, “because of the language used by mourning family members.”
CBS is currently fighting several hefty FCC fines in court, including one resulting from Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl.
As for entertainment programming, the Viacom and CBS exec had advice for those who may be offended: Follow his example and don’t watch.
“I’ll confess I never did get ‘Beavis & Butthead,’ and the popularity of ‘Jackass Number Two’ is lost on me,” Redstone said. “And I admit that not every CBS show is on my must-watch list.”
But he said the answer is to arm parents with “the ability to block content they don’t want their children to see,” not to leave it up to the government to determine what is and is not suitable for viewing.
“Give the government the tools to punish those it doesn’t like or silence what it doesn’t want to hear, and you undermine democracy,” he said.
Plenty of government officials were on hand to hear Redstone’s remarks, including newest FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, who keynoted the evening.
McDowell, who joined the agency in June, urged the industry and regulators to “work together to strive for more private sector solutions” to curbing violence and profanity in the media.
But he warned that if “effective solutions” aren’t found, “then government is going to fill the vacuum.”
President Bush’s appointment of McDowell, a longtime telecom lawyer and Republican party activist, gave the GOP a 3-2 majority on the commission.