Over the past several years, many of the federal government's restrictions on the broadcast industry's business arrangements have been loosened or even abandoned. During the same period, broadcast standards concerning sexual material, depictions of violence and foul language also have been loosened or even abandoned.
Are those facts connected? Yes, indirectly.
The latest major broadcast-deregulation development is a Feb. 19 federal appeals court decision that tossed out the ban on companies owning a cable-television system and a broadcast TV station in the same market.
Moreover, the regulation prohibiting a company from owning TV stations with a collective potential audience of more than 35 percent of households appears doomed as well. The court didn't exactly junk it, instead ordering the FCC to justify why it should stand. But given the laissez-faire leanings of commission chairman Michael Powell, it's unlikely that much of an effort will be made in that regard.
Powell has, in the New York Times' words, "questioned the need for (such) regulations at a time (when) consumers have a broad array of choices in news and entertainment." On the other hand, Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, told the Times that the court's decision was "a terrible thing for diversity of viewpoint in general, for programming diversity in particular."
Television today is a virtual smorgasbord of viewing options -- true enough. There are networks devoted entirely to sports, to news, to women's issues, to shopping, to classic movies. With over 100 viable networks for cable carriers to choose from, it's simply illogical to be applying the regulatory rules of the '60s, when there were only a handful of channels and the possibility of unhealthy monopolies certainly did exist.
But before we change the ownership rules again, we should think about two other factors, two unintended consequences of deregulation. Both have already damaged markedly the quality of television programming; further deregulation will promise to make matters even worse.
It is just too simplistic to point to varied content options as the justification for deregulation when within those content options exists a continuum of sleaze. Deregulation and consolidation have facilitated the spread of raunch when unscrupulous corporate giants have applied their valueless standards across the board to their networks. Take the Viacom conglomerate, run by Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin, the man who gave us Howard Stern.
In the past several years, Viacom's networks have become increasingly reflective of an immoral worldview. UPN, which had been attempting family programming, acquired the WWF. The Nashville Network became the sleazy National Network. MTV went from merely awful to soft porn for children. Comedy Central, which Viacom co-owns with AOL Time Warner, is now the home of toilet humor and little else. The content of each network may be different, but all share disgraceful values.
Then there is the reality that the bigger the media conglomerate, the less it will care to uphold whatever good qualities any of its properties might have, simply for the sake of good quality. The "Nightline"/David Letterman squabble at ABC is indicative of this trend.
It apparently matters nothing that Ted Koppel's "Nightline" has been a popular (for its genre) program for ABC's viewers for more than two decades. It apparently matters nothing that "Nightline" is not only the most prestigious news offering at ABC, it's just about the only serious, in-depth analysis of real news left on the broadcast networks. Apparently missing in the discussion is the social responsibility a network has to use its formidable power to enlighten and educate.
No, what matters to the suits at Disney, which owns ABC, is that Letterman could deliver even more revenue to the bottom line, period. So out would go one of the last choices for serious journalism on the broadcast networks; in would come Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks."
I do enjoy Letterman, and it's a shame his show highlights the bigger unintended consequence of deregulated television, but it is a contributing factor in making TV more and more ... stupid. The dumbing-down of culture is an issue of importance to all, even to those of us with rabid libertarian streaks.