Federal regulators, concerned about the effect of television violence on children, will recommend that Congress enact legislation to give the government unprecedented powers to curb violence in entertainment programming, according to government and TV industry sources.
The Federal Communications Commission has concluded that regulating TV violence is in the public interest, particularly during times when children are likely to be viewers -- typically between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., FCC sources say.
The agency's recommendations -- which will be released in a report to Congress within the next week, agency officials say -- could set up a legal battle between Washington and the television industry.
For decades, the FCC has penalized over-the-air broadcasters for airing sexually suggestive, or "indecent," speech and images, but it has never had the authority to fine TV stations and networks for violent programming.
The report -- commissioned by members of Congress in 2004 and based on hundreds of comments from parents, industry officials, academic experts and others -- concludes that Congress has the authority to regulate "excessive violence" and to extend its reach for the first time into basic-cable TV channels that consumers pay to receive.
First Amendment experts and television industry executives, however, say that any attempt to regulate TV violence faces high constitutional hurdles -- particularly regarding cable, because consumers choose to buy its programming.
Further, any laws governing TV violence would have to define what violence is. The FCC report contains broad guidelines but leaves the details up to Congress.
Violent acts escalating?
Regulators and lawmakers say that violent acts on entertainment shows -- from torture scenes on Fox's "24" to the cartoonish mayhem of professional wrestling -- have escalated in recent years, posing a continuing threat to children.
"Parents are always the first and last line of defense in protecting their children, but legislation could give parents more tools," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday regarding the report. "I think it would be better if the industry addressed this on its own, but we can also give parents" help through regulation.
The FCC's conclusions probably will form the basis of legislation being drafted by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), says spokeswoman Wendy Morigi. Rockefeller, who is a Commerce Committee member, will introduce his bill after he has digested the FCC's recommendations, she said.
The FCC is finishing its recommendations amid heightened sensitivity to the issue, given the round-the-clock TV news coverage of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.
Social-science research dating back to the 1950s has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to watching violence on TV has a negative effect on children -- with observed behavior ranging from heightened anxiety to aggressive acts. But studies also have shown that some portrayals of TV violence can be beneficial, such as showing children the harm caused by violent behavior.
Congress has wrestled with the issue for decades but has never enacted a law designed to curb it. In 2004, 39 lawmakers asked the FCC to study the issue and advise Congress on legislation.
A key obstacle to any such law has been crafting a definition for violence that could survive a court review.
According to FCC sources, the report's recommendations include the creation of an "a la carte" system that would allow consumers to buy only the cable channels they want -- a favorite plan of Martin's that is widely opposed by cable companies.
Several large media companies own basic cable channels, some of which feature violent content. It is unknown which channels are cited in the report.
Viacom, which owns MTV, Nickelodeon and Spike -- whose prime-time programming is supported by the mixed-martial-arts Ultimate Fighting Championship -- said it would not comment on the FCC report until it is released.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. is home to the FX basic-cable network, which features "The Shield," a drama about troubled and corrupt police officers, and last month premiered "The Riches," which showed the graphic and bloody results of a fatal car crash. And "24," which airs on News Corp.'s Fox broadcast network, regularly features graphic torture sequences. News Corp. declined to comment until the report is issued.
NBC Universal did not return calls seeking comment. Its shows include the science-fiction drama "Battlestar Galactica," which airs on the company's basic-cable Sci Fi Channel and includes torture and fight scenes.
In parents' hands
Adam D. Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation who writes extensively on government regulation of the media, said the answer to preventing children from seeing violent content is in the hands of the parents -- literally.
"There are more ways to control violent and objectionable content on cable and satellite television than ever before," Thierer said. "Every single set-top-box technology on the market has some sort of parental-control mechanism embedded in it."
But many parents don't use V-chip blocking, the technology that Congress in 1996 mandated be built into TV sets to filter programs based on industry-developed ratings -- which in any case are inconsistent, according to a report released last week by the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that monitors television shows for sexual and violent content. The report said that networks are not accurately applying ratings to programs, thus enabling children to see sexual and violent content that parents are trying to block.
Thierer said that if Congress were to pass laws that empower the FCC or another agency to regulate basic-cable channels for violent content, they likely would not stand legal challenges brought by the cable industry. He drew an analogy to local and federal attempts to regulate violent content in video games, which -- like cable and satellite television -- do not come into the home free over the airwaves.
"Every single one of them was struck down as unconstitutional," Thierer said. Further, in 2000 the Supreme Court struck down part of the Communications Decency Act that required cable operators to scramble or block the Playboy Channel, saying such methods are unconstitutional.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the trade group of large cable companies, including Comcast, declined to comment on the report until it is released.
Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, drew a distinction between broadcast television and other programming: "Most people would recognize that broadcast programming is far more tame -- both in terms of sexual and violent content -- than what you'd find on cable and satellite TV."