Magazine article USA TODAY

PUBLIC AIRWAVES and the Public Interest

Magazine article USA TODAY

PUBLIC AIRWAVES and the Public Interest

Article excerpt

"... Violence, vulgarity, and profanity during the networks' traditional `family hour' have more than tripled over the last 10 years."

TELEVISION is America's storyteller. More than any other form of media, it helps shape the attitudes, assumptions, and imagination of the next generation.

The extraordinary power and influence of the broadcast media can be used for good or for ill. Certainly, there are high-quality TV shows that intelligently educate and wholesomely entertain. There are programs which stir people's aspirations and children's shows that have been honored for their educational value. Many programs have inspired, instructed, uplifted, and edified countless numbers of Americans. Yet, if a television show is able to educate and edify, it can also contuse and corrupt.

The main problem with television programming is not that a few scenes or even a few shows are horrifically shocking, but, rather, the near-constant stream of sleaze. Violence, irresponsibility, and vulgarity are staples of prime time. Scenes of illicit sex rarely include portraying the possible consequences: AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, divorce, and/or heartbreak. Television strongly implies that adultery and teen sex are normal, even desirable, when the truth is that such behavior frequently can lead to shattered lives.

According to some studies, the typical American child spends more than four hours a day in front of a screen--three hours watching television and one hour playing video games or surfing the Web. In contrast, youngsters spend less than an hour a day on homework or reading and, according to the Carnegie Foundation, less than 20 minutes in conversation with their mothers and less than five minutes talking with their fathers.

Some people in the industry assert, "We don't make the culture; we just reflect it. Television programming is a mirror of society." However, today's programming is less a mirror than a mirage. The world of television characters is far more violent, conflicted, and perverse than typical American life. There are more Amish people in the U.S. than ax murderers, more pastors than prostitutes, and more volunteers than criminals--but you'd never know it from TV.

The medium's awesome power prompted early requirements that television stations which enjoyed free access to the electromagnetic spectrum must serve "the public interest, convenience and necessity." Congress entrusted the Federal Communications Commission with the implementation and enforcement of the public-interest requirement, which gives the FCC the power to issue, renew, or approve the transfer of a broadcast license only upon determining that doing so will serve the public interest.

Defining the "public interest" has proved a tricky business. Some FCC commissioners have pressed for well-defined educational programming requirements to fulfill "the public interest"; others have referred to television as a "toaster with pictures" and claimed that "the public interest is what the public is interested in." Subsequent attempts to resolve the debate over the definition and service of the public interest have often raised more questions and allowed for politicized interpretations of public-interest requirements.

Hence, we have the FCC's recent redefinition of educational programming as excluding "statements of personally held religious views and beliefs." According to the FCC's policy (announced during the Christmas season, when Congress was out of session), church, synagogue, and mosque services do not serve the educational and cultural needs of the public (unlike, say, "Barney" or any PBS program).

For the FCC to single out religious broadcasters for such treatment smacks of more than religious discrimination. It demonstrates deep confusion over what the public interest is and how it is served. In response to the FCC's ill-advised policy, I introduced S. …

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